Fifteen years ago, New Orleans faced catastrophe. Hurricane Katrina barreled into the city. More than a thousand people died, and the city, sitting in ruins, faced $150 billion in damage. Today, we are staring down a different crisis in COVID-19, but some of the lessons-especially for schools-are the same.
Katrina shut down school buildings in the city for months-in other cases, years. Most students received no schooling at all for some weeks. Children were forced to leave their friends and teachers for new school settings. Older students faced an uncertain future with few jobs. Many families lost their homes to the ensuing economic calamity. Most people in the city knew someone who died. Katrina was traumatic.
The storm also forced New Orleans schools to change. State and local leaders had to persuade federal officials to provide financial support, attract people back to the city, and successfully serve those who came so they would stay.
One of the essential steps was allowing families to choose any school they wished, of those that reopened. Leaders had to give parents choices because so few buildings could be easily made functional in the storm's aftermath, and families returned in unpredictable patterns. There was no practical way, at first, to go back to neighborhood-assigned schools.
This part of the story is important because a policy requiring school choice had long been a possibility. The policy just didn't have enough public support to be enacted. But once the choice system was forced into place, the idea became popular. Katrina created a new status quo.
Other aspects of the school system changed, not because those changes were necessary for practical purposes, but because of powerful social and political forces. In New Orleans, traditional public schools were widely seen prior to the storm as corrupt, dysfunctional, and failing. The district was the second-lowest-performing in the state.
Some local leaders saw the storm's aftermath as an opportunity to change all that. In addition to ending attendance zones, the state government took over the traditional public schools and converted them into nonprofit, privately operated charter schools. They also eliminated teacher tenure and ended the union contract.
No city had ever done any one of those things. New Orleans did them all at once. The latest results, recently released, were similarly unusual. The city's reforms increased everything from test scores and high school graduation to college-going and parental satisfaction. It is rare for any program or reform to have positive effects across such a wide range of measures for an entire district.
Will COVID-19 create unprecedented changes in the nation's schools as Katrina did in the schools of New Orleans? Perhaps. The situation certainly feels familiar. With COVID-19, our children have been, once again, forced to leave their school buildings, friends, and teachers and to experience different kinds of schooling. Once again, we face this in the shadow of economic calamity and lost lives. Once again, there is trauma.
COVID-19 is also similar to Katrina because we are being forced to make changes in schooling. Students are doing more schoolwork from home, relying more on online tools, and learning under more flexible schedules and increased parental guidance. While we didn't really choose this new status quo, students, parents, and teachers will want to maintain some of those changes.
For example, parent "pods" and "micro schools" are likely to expand. Online learning tools, some of which are very good, will be much more widely used.
We cannot and should not replace the relationships between students and teachers, though. We can, of course, improve those relationships and the curriculum and instruction that are at their core.
Some leaders, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, want to go further and "reimagine" schools. But there are dangers to this. DeVos' main goal seems to be turning schooling over to private organizations through vouchers, a strategy that has mostly failed based on available metrics when tried statewide. This is not a surprise given the fact that the provision of schooling is significantly different from the provision of other kinds of services. But it's a lesson worth remembering.
Now, you might wonder, why am I skeptical of "reimagining"? After all, the New Orleans reforms were unprecedented and generated comparatively large improvements in student outcomes. But New Orleans accomplished this in a very different way from the ideas now being discussed. State leaders rejected vouchers and gradually ramped up and revamped the role for government as they learned from their mistakes. They used some market-oriented features, such as parental choice and school autonomy, but maintained an active role for government, such as holding schools accountable and trying to ensure that all students had access to a quality school. They "reimagined" the system, but this was not an ideological end in itself-they focused on getting the basics right in the classroom.
New Orleans' reformers also got some things wrong, however. The reforms were foisted on the city's mostly Black citizenry by a small number of white leaders. Three-quarters of teachers were Black and all of them were fired. As the national school reform leader Howard Fuller has put it, the New Orleans reforms were done "to us, not with us," and that led to some poor decisions and lingering resentments that have undermined the long-term prospects of the reforms. It's not hard to see the problem with this top-down approach, especially as we reckon with systemic racism.
One lesson of the New Orleans experience, then, is that crises force us into changes we might not have made otherwise-and some of this can be beneficial. The second lesson is that how we go about this "reimagining" matters a great deal. State and federal governments have key roles to play in creating the conditions for improvement (such as funding, accountability, and oversight), while other important decisions about the quality and character of schools should be left to students, parents, teachers, and communities. They can find out what works for themselves as they wade through this new educational reality.
Fifteen years ago, we had a great tragedy in New Orleans, and we can now carefully consider what we did with our schools in its wake. Fifteen years from now, we'll be looking back on how we responded to COVID-19. We owe it to students, who are suffering mightily, to make the best of this difficult situation.
Douglas N. Harris is a professor and the chair of the Department of Economics at Tulane University and the author of the recently published Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education .