Add New Orleans to the list of major American cities with consortia for school research. The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, which officially launched this week, is a Tulane University-based partnership between researchers and local K-12 educators.
Tulane and the Murphy Institute at Tulane have kicked in ongoing funding of $120,000 per year, plus in-kind support. An anonymous foundation has provided a one-year grant of $150,000. Alliance partners include the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, the Louisiana Recovery School District, New Schools for New Orleans, Orleans Parish School Board, and the Orleans Public Education Network.
"The opportunities and challenges are unique in New Orleans," said Douglas Harris, a Tulane economics professor and the director of the New Orleans Alliance. "This is an unusual chance to study what happens with an unprecedented level of decentralization, charter schooling, and parental choice, but that same decentralization requires developing relationships with schools one by one. That takes more time than it would working with a traditional school district, but it also facilitates an unusual level of collaboration at the school level that we think will pay dividends for everyone down the road. We all have the same broad goal--improving student learning and long-term life outcomes—and that is helping the relationships with schools to develop quickly."
Like other consortia of its kind, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans was founded with a specific goal in mind.
"The purpose of this new research center is to understand the effects of the unprecedented New Orleans school reforms put in place after the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina," said Harris. "We have already developed an extensive research agenda, starting with the basic question, 'What effects have the reforms had on student outcomes?' While starting with student test scores, we will also focus on long-term outcomes, such as college and life success, that form the purpose of K-12 education."
Equally important, according to Harris, is the related question of why these effects have emerged.
"From the design of the reforms, we believe there are five main categories of potential answers: educator effectiveness, test-based accountability, parental choice, charter/CMO management, and funding," said Harris.
The Alliance's first report, scheduled to be released this spring, will examine how parents in the city choose schools.
In launching an alliance between researchers and practitioners, New Orleans is in good company.The first example of this specific type of alliance was the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which was founded in 1990. Since then, at least ten other larger American cities, New Orleans included, have followed suit, with most of the activity occurring within the past decade. Alliances now exist in Los Angeles (Los Angeles Education Research Institute, founded in 2011), New York (Research Alliance for New York City Schools, founded in 2008) and, most recently, Washington, D.C. (The Education Consortium for Research and Evaluation, founded in 2013).
A benefit of such consortia is that researchers get to know a school district in such a way that the context garnered from past studies can inform the research agenda and studies of the future. But it should be noted that a district-university partnership in no way guarantees that all parties will embrace the findings, especially when they contradict political narratives and agendas. For example, when a 2011 Chicago Consortium report found that elementary school test scores had stagnated and the black-white achievement gap had widened over the past two decades, the city's former schools chief, Paul Vallas, responded by telling The Chicago Tribune: "I don't know what planet they're on."
In New Orleans, a specific challenge has been that school districts throughout the nation have been encouraged to emulate the district's post-Katrina model of eliminating residential attendance zones for schools, permitting most public schools to become charters and effectively ending unionization and teacher tenure. Yet Harris notes that there is a shortage of empirical evidence about what has actually happened and why.
"Advocates point to the strong upward trend in student test scores and high school graduation, while critics charge that the trend is driven by the change in the population after the storm and other factors unrelated to student learning," he said. "There are a lot of assertions on both sides, but little evidence."