NEW ORLEANS—As her class winds down on a recent Thursday morning at Sci Academy, a charter high school in New Orleans East, Katie Bubalo hands out a short survey, called an "exit ticket," to her sophomore English students. She does this every period to see how much of the lesson students absorbed.
The second of three questions reads:
What is the main idea of this passage?
- Oedipus does not believe the seer because he is blind and untrustworthy.
- Oedipus is in disbelief about his fate and mocks the seer.
- The seer attempts to deliver bad news but realizes he cannot because Oedipus is the king.
- Oedipus listens intently to the seer, all the while realizing his disastrous fate.
Papers shuffle forward and kids walk out the door. Then Bubalo shakes hands with every student who files in for the next period, after which she distributes another survey—an “entry ticket”—administered at the beginning of a class to see whether students retained the previous day’s material. Later, she’ll feed the entry and exit data, along with attendance information and other performance measures, into Sci’s software system.
The theory is that, over time, patterns emerge to tell teachers who is succeeding, where students fall short, how to remediate them, and what correlations might exist between performance and, say, poverty or the length of a commute. Administrators even track their former students through the first year of college to see how they can better prepare their 9th- and 10th-graders for the challenges to come. Sabermetrics suffuse Sci Academy, and every teacher is Billy Beane.
It’s working. Sci, whose student body is representative of most pre-Katrina public schools (92 percent are on free or reduced lunch and 95 percent are black), is a star performer in a reinvented school system obsessed with analytics. After Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans laid off every public-school teacher and started from scratch. It turned over most of the system to the state-run Recovery School District, which began issuing charter licenses that allow schools to operate in whatever way they see fit, as long as they meet certain standards. The RSD is strict about credentialing only ambitious, college-prep schools—and even stricter about closing them after three years if they fall below expectations. Eight years after Katrina, more than 80 percent of the city’s students now attend a charter school. And the early results are amazing.
Before Katrina, the passing rate on state tests was 35 percent; now it’s 60 percent. The graduation rate has climbed from 55 percent to over 75 percent, surpassing the national average. Before the storm, three-fifths of the city’s students attended a failing school; now fewer than one-fifth do, even as standards got tougher. And parents are 40 percent more likely to send their kids to a school other than the one closest to their home, according to a forthcoming study by Douglas N. Harris, an education economist at Tulane, and several of his colleagues. (Most charter schools, like Sci, are open-enrollment; there are no more district schools.) At this rate, within five years New Orleans will become the first major city in the country to exceed its state’s average scores.
At a time when sexy reinventions are unfolding across town—in the tech sector, the nonprofit world, and even the film industry—the school system represents the most meaningful and most insufficiently heralded change. It has risen from a state of crisis to a state of mediocrity, which counts for a miracle here. “New Orleans has undergone the largest and quickest improvement in the history of public education in America,” says Michael Stone, chief external relations officer at New Schools for New Orleans, a school-innovation nonprofit.
At the same time, a revolution done on the fly is unlikely to achieve perfect results. While the school system has finally begun to address the most crucial social pathology here—the educational barriers to income mobility—the overhaul created a raft of new, lesser problems that local reformers have not entirely figured out how to solve.