The Silicon Valley of School Reform

Lusher School Building facade
 Paula Burch-Celentano

Tulane University is fortunate to be located in its unique home of New Orleans. Really, it is difficult to imagine the university being anywhere else. The city shapes the university, and the university shapes the city.

Nowhere is that relationship closer than with New Orleans public schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the public school system was like just about every other system across the country: a locally-elected board governed the schools, teachers were unionized and had tenure, and students mostly went to schools in their own neighborhoods.

After the storm, that old way disappeared. The state took over governance of almost all schools and turned them into charter schools, run by private non-profits. New Orleans Public Schools regained local control in 2019, but this was not a return to the past. Rather, New Orleans is now the only all-charter school district in the country.

Tulane was involved in these reforms from the beginning. After the storm, then-Tulane president Scott Cowen led the mayor-appointed committee that solicited community input and made recommendations, and he continues to lead the Cowen Institute at Tulane in monitoring and analyzing progress and developing innovative programs. Expanding on these efforts, the university recruited me to come to Tulane to found the Education Research Alliance (ERA) for New Orleans. In 2014, we started by forming our advisory board, which is comprised of local education leaders with widely varying views about the reforms—from teacher unions to the state department of education. However, these groups all agree on one thing: the school reform debate should be informed by objective, rigorous, and useful evidence.

What have we found in our studies? Schools are complicated places with multifaceted goals. But there have been some productive outcomes in the 14 years since the reforms started:

  • The New Orleans school reforms significantly increased commonly-measured student outcomes: the average student in New Orleans moved from the 22nd percentile nationally to the 37th percentile, while high school graduation rates, college entry, and college graduation increased by 10-30 percent each.
  • The reforms reduced almost every type of achievement gap by race, income, and special education status.
  • Most parents of children attending the new schools, as well as voters, generally believe the reforms improved schools.

However, not all developments have been so positive:

  • While student performance has improved compared with the pre-reform era, it is hard to celebrate being at the 37th percentile nationally.
  • Our surveys of students suggest that the quality of teaching in New Orleans schools is also below the national average. This may be related to the relatively low levels of teacher experience and certification and high turnover.
  • The reforms shifted funds out of the classroom to cover increased costs of administration and transportation.

And perhaps most importantly, the process of creating the reforms left out New Orleans’ local, mostly African American community. The process disenfranchised African Americans, creating a deep, lasting wound that the reformers have struggled to heal. This exclusion from the process may have also had educational consequences: though achievement gaps declined, our student surveys find that African American students have a less positive experience than white students in school.

While the reforms remain controversial, such rapid success on key academic metrics has put New Orleans educators in high demand for leadership positions and consulting jobs elsewhere. Some of the new non-profits and for-profits have spread their wings to other cities. In these respects, the Tulane-New Orleans relationship parallels what Stanford did with the technology sector in the San Francisco area. New Orleans is now akin to the Silicon Valley of school reform.

Our role at ERA-New Orleans has been to ask the tough questions and communicate our answers—positive and negative—to the community. We have influenced schooling decisions by shaping our understanding of schools and student experiences. References to our reports can be seen not only in the media, but also in school professional development sessions, school board meetings, and community discussions about education. Our reports have also received attention around the world—in addition to more than 100 references in national and international media, we have discussed our work with education ministers and parliamentary delegations from four continents.

ERA-New Orleans is continuing to evolve and find new ways for our research to make a difference for New Orleans children. We are working to transform our organization into a true research-practice partnership, where members of our advisory board, which includes the city’s public school district, can vote on research questions and quickly receive analyses that will help inform policy decisions.

As in Silicon Valley, the relationship between universities and their cities can be transformative. For ERA-New Orleans, my hope is to continue giving back to the city’s schools and students for decades to come. We must learn from what transpired in our past so that we, as a community, can make informed decisions about the character of the schools we want for our children.

Learning from the ERA-New Orleans

My work at ERA-New Orleans as an undergraduate intern, and now research analyst, has propelled me into the world of education research. While at ERA-New Orleans, I’ve worked on a variety of policy-relevant research projects, attended meetings with New Orleans school and community leaders, and met prominent education researchers throughout the country. I am proud of the research we do at ERA-New Orleans not only because it is rigorous, but also because it is designed to be useful for the community by providing quantitative evidence on the effects of education policy changes.

Cathy Balfe (SLA ’18)
Research Analyst
 Education Research Alliance for New Orleans
Tulane University


I really found a passion for education research through my work at ERA. After I graduated from Tulane University, I took a job with the Indiana State Legislative Services Agency as a fiscal analyst for education policy. In that role I got to help legislators understand the impacts of different policies they wanted to implement. I am currently an Instructor of Economics at Butler University, and I continue to work on education research as a contractor with the state of Indiana.  

Of course research is important for the sake of creating knowledge, but I think the work at ERA is unique in its ability to bring together a wide variety of perspectives—practitioners, researchers, parents, and other stakeholders. This leads to better quality research and a more receptive audience once the research is articulated.

Whitney Bross, (PhD ’16).
Instructor of Economics
Lacy School of Business
Butler University