RAND Review News for Winter 2011-2012

Few Differences Between New Orleans Charter, Traditional Schools

The large-scale expansion of charter schools in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has generated few differences in educational practice between traditional and charter schools. One difference that did emerge in a RAND study was this: Parents of kids in charter schools perceived a greater sense of choice and greater satisfaction with those schools, on average, than did their counterparts in traditional schools.

Student Terielle Brown walks with a food tray to serve guests visiting the Samuel J. Green Charter schoolyard.
AP IMAGES/JUDI BOTTONI
Student Terielle Brown walks with a food tray to serve guests visiting the Samuel J. Green Charter schoolyard that has been transformed into a learning garden where New Orleans students plant, weed, and harvest their produce.

The New Orleans public schools underwent a dramatic overhaul following the 2005 hurricane. The school system, which had been struggling with poor student performance and financial mismanagement, was reorganized into two districts: a state-run Recovery School District and a locally administered Orleans Parish School Board. Each authorizes a large number of charter schools, which served 61 percent of the city’s public school students in the spring of 2010. New Orleans is the first city in the nation to carry out a charter-based reform at this scale.

Within the Recovery School District, which consists of schools that had been failing before the reorganization, charter schools showed higher school-performance scores in 2008–09 than traditional schools did. Nevertheless, both charter and traditional schools in the Recovery School District underperformed charter and traditional schools of the Orleans Parish School Board. Neither charter status nor district status nor information from teacher surveys about school policies, staffing, and instruction reliably predicted improvement in a school’s performance during the 2008–09 academic year.

The most critical difference in educational contexts was in the perceived challenges to raising student achievement. Principals and teachers rated such challenges as parent involvement, student discipline, and student transfers as more serious in traditional schools than in charter schools. Charter-school principals also reported having greater control over many instructional and administrative functions of their schools than did their traditional-school counterparts.

But in other ways, the operations of charter and traditional schools remained similar. Principals at both types of schools reported nearly equal lengths of the average school year and average school day. Teachers at charter schools were as likely as those at traditional schools to report that their schools had a strong sense of mission. They reported devoting almost identical shares of instructional time to activities that promoted higher-order thinking skills, that were based on real-life situations, or that required students to work independently. Teachers’ career plans and expected tenures were also similar at both types of schools.

Charter-school parents were most likely to choose a school because of its curriculum, achievement record, and discipline policies. Traditional-school parents were most likely to choose a school because of its proximity, transportation availability, or a sense that it was the only school available.

“This raises the question of whether school choice in New Orleans is equally accessible and navigable by all,” said Jennifer Steele, a RAND education policy researcher who co-led the study with RAND senior behavioral scientist Georges Vernez. square

For more information:

The Transformation of a School System: Principal, Teacher, and Parent Perceptions of Charter and Traditional Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans, RAND/TR-1145-TUV, 2011.

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