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How Have the New Orleans School Reforms Affected Teachers?

Hurricane Katrina marked the start of dramatic school reforms in the city of New Orleans—and now, 12 years later, a survey gives some insight into the impact of those changes on the teachers who are still there. 

After the hurricane, all public school teachers were fired and neighborhood schools, which had been chronically failing for years, were dismantled. The state of Louisiana took over most of the city's schools, which were then turned into charter schools. 

For a paper released today, researchers at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans surveyed 323 of the 771 total teachers who taught in New Orleans public schools both before Hurricane Katrina and in the 2013-14 school year. They wanted to know: Did these reforms ultimately change what happens in schools and classrooms? 

They found that multiple aspects of the learning environment have improved: Teachers reported that their current schools had greater emphasis on both academic and social-emotional goals. A little more than half of teachers in tested grades said they used testing data for instruction now more than they did in their pre-Katrina schools.

And these reforms have paid off by some indicators: Teachers (and other data measures) say that students are more likely to stay in school, post-Katrina.

But 61 percent of teachers reported that their level of satisfaction in their job was lower under the reforms. They said that while there was an increase in school autonomy, there was no corresponding increase in teacher autonomy. 

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The researchers note that while education reform advocates would be pleased that teachers say there is now a higher likelihood of low-performing teachers being dismissed, and a greater use of data in administrative decisions, this might cause stress for teachers. 

Black teachers reported a larger average decline in their job satisfaction compared with non-black teachers, and male teachers reported less of an increase in their work hours and in their administrators' use of data than did female teachers.

Teachers who now work in charter schools reported a smaller decline in satisfaction with their evaluations and jobs. The paper notes that it's possible this is because reform-minded teachers chose to work in charter schools. It's also important to note that teachers who have returned to teach after Katrina comprise just 10 percent of all the teachers in the city.

The report concludes with some questions to consider as accountability-based school reforms continue to evolve: How can academic improvements be achieved while still supporting teachers? Can improvements in the learning environment be sustained if teachers aren't satisfied with their jobs? 

"Teachers' job satisfaction matters, not only because attracting and retaining good teachers is essential to students' achievement, but also because teachers' work environments directly affect the learning environments and experiences of students," the researchers write. 

In 2015, to mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Education Week published a series exploring the post-Katrina schools. One of the stories explored the plight of the teachers, primarily black and female, who lost their jobs after the storm.

"In too many places in this country, the strategy of ed[ucation]. reform is shutting down black schools, firing black teachers, and I just don't see that as the strategy for going forward," says Howard Fuller, a supporter of charter schools and school choice reforms, in that article.

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