Founded in 1834, Tulane is among the most highly regarded independent research universities in the United States, and is ranked by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in the highest category of “very high research activity,” that includes only two percent of over 4,300 universities nationwide.
In the fall of 2005, Tulane weathered Hurricane Katrina and emerged from the storm as a stronger institution with a renewed interest in the well-being of its immediate community. This is reflected in the public commitment to the transformation of New Orleans’ public education by Dr. Scott Cowen, then president of Tulane. Under his chairmanship, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s Education Committee synthesized the input of local stakeholders and national experts to provide a clear vision of the elements of a world-class public school system. The committee envisioned a new system focused on learning and achievement for all students, fostering a greater sense of engagement between schools, parents and the community, with schools that were empowered and accountable for their performance. To ensure that school leaders would have access to system-wide resources and economies of scale, the committee further recommended the implementation of four organizational cornerstones: a lean district office, school networks, top talent, and aligned governance.
While the commission’s recommendations found support across the board, the task at hand was too pressing for the city to have the luxury of phasing in the commission’s plans. As the driver of these recommendations, Scott Cowen saw the potential for rebuilding a new kind of public school system – but he also saw the risk of the opportunity slipping away, as fragmented school governance and poor finances jeopardized the emerging system of schools. As the largest employer in the city, no one understood the interdependence of the University and its surrounding community better than the University’s President. It is this understanding that drives the Tulane faculty, staff, and students who, through seventy programs currently run in four dozen public schools in the Orleans Parish, work to advance the education of local children. Much of the work carried out at the University today has been shaped by its experience with the hurricane, which has provided faculty, staff and students with unprecedented research, learning, and community service opportunities.
In recognition of President Emeritus Cowen’s vision to save New Orleans’ failing public education system, the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives was founded in December 2006, with a grant from the Lavin Family Foundation. After months of planning, the Cowen Institute officially opened its doors in March 2007. Named for the University President, himself a product of the public school system, the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives seeks to further Tulane’s impact on public education reform, serving as a sustained advocate of urban education system success.
In the United States, the zip code where a child is born is the single greatest factor in predicting their educational outcomes and life prospects. Using a dozen educational and socioeconomic factors, it was estimated in 2005 that a child born in Louisiana had one of the worst life prospects in the country. The same study also ranked Louisiana’s student achievement level at well below the national average. As one of the lowest performing districts in the country, the pre-Katrina New Orleans public education landscape was, in fact, much worse. The long legacy of this under-performing school system resulted in middle-class flight to private and parochial schools and decreased public investment in education. Further compounding the issue of school performance was overwhelming system-level failure: fiscal mismanagement and corruption resulted in a district on the verge of bankruptcy, continuous turnover of leadership (the average tenure of superintendents was only 11 months), and dilapidated school buildings.
When Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans in August 2005, the academically, morally, and financially bankrupt system was virtually destroyed. The storm displaced 65,000 students and 7,500 school employees, and only 16 of 128 school buildings escaped relatively unscathed. In all, the damages to the school system’s infrastructure totaled over $1.5 billion.
The response to the tragedy was nothing short of radical. Nearly 90% of public schools in the city were declared “failing” by the Louisiana Legislature and transferred to the authority of the state-run Recovery School District. Every school system employee, including teachers, was fired. The contract with the powerful teachers union was terminated, eliminating collective bargaining. The majority of schools reopened as charter schools, which are publicly-funded and operated by nonprofit organizations or universities, giving New Orleans a greater percentage of students in charter schools than any other district in the United States. Education entrepreneurs and veteran educators from around the country flocked to the city to participate in the greatest public school renaissance in the country.
Today, over half of the pre-Katrina students have returned – and those who have are part of an entirely new system, characterized by autonomy, choice, and multiple school operators. Challenges remain: no unified governing body is in place to ensure accountability for all schools, new teachers are struggling with class management, and school facilities are still in disrepair.
However, the new model of delivering education to the city’s youth has begun to yield results. Parental involvement, teacher quality, and community engagement have all improved. Between the 2006-07 and the 2007-08 school years, student achievement rose for nearly every school in the city – and across all school types. Overall, the schools collectively saw a 15 percent increase in school performance scores from 2005-2008. Even so, New Orleans still ranks 65th out of 68 school districts in Louisiana, a state which has some of the lowest public school achievement levels in the country. While public schools in New Orleans are still performing at a level far below where they need to be, the improvements they have shown since Hurricane Katrina is very promising. New Orleans, once ranked as one of the worst school districts in the country, has the potential to develop a model for unprecedented innovation in public education.