Education philanthropists should not take advice from Larry Summers

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Tyler Cowen just interviewed Larry Summers.

In a blog post about the interview, Tyler wrote: “if you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.”

This may be the case when it comes to economics. While I’m in no position to evaluate his economic policy claims, I found Summers to be reflective, curious, and thoughtful. He seems like the kind of person I would enjoy working with.

But Summers also discussed education philanthropy, and I came away with a strong belief that I almost certainly smarter than Summers on this subject.

I don’t say this because I for sure know that I’m right and Summers is wrong; rather, I say this because I have a firmer grasp of the research, more hands on experience, and a clearer strategic vision for scalable and sustainable change.

Given that Summers likely has a good 20-30 IQ points on me, and that he has risen to the top of an extremely competitive field, the fact that I’m likely smarter than Summers in this area is a testament to the powers of specialization and the domain specific nature of knowledge.

How should you spend a $100 million? 

In the interview, Tyler asked Summers how he would advise a philanthropist in St. Louis who wanted to give away a $100 million to help her city.  After admitting the he knew little about St. Louis, Summers answered the question more generally, and said that he would focus on public education.

As it happens, my job is to advise philanthropists who want to improve public education. Currently, our team manages the philanthropic giving for Reed Hastings and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Given my day job, I was curious to hear how Summers would respond.

Moreover, while he may not remember, Summers was once asked about relinquishment during an interview on education reform (I was in attendance and vividly remember him saying “Ah, relinquishment…”), and I was curious to see if my ideas had impacted him at all.

They have not!

Summer’s advice: avoid charter schools and work outside the system 

In the interview, Summers gave two pieces of advice to education philanthropists:

  1. Avoid charter schools: Too many philanthropists set-up charter schools that cream students, pay teachers salaries that are not sustainable on the public dollar, and then ultimately cannibalize the traditional system of good students, good teachers, and public funds.
  2. Avoid the K12 system: Instead of trying to tackle the core K-12 system, it’s better to fund efforts that work around the system, such as after school or summer school.

I think both of these points are wrong.

Summers ignores a large evidence base on charter schools

I recently summarized the evidence on charters schools on this blog. Summers ignores most of this research:

Achievement: Urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools, posting annual effects of .05-.1 standard deviations. This holds true with both quasi-experimental designs (where researchers try to control for student selection) and experimental designs (where student selection is randomized). Charters are not achieving their impacts because of student creaming.

Funding: Charter schools, on average, receive much less funding than traditional schools. As I previously wrote about, in numerous cities where charter schools receive less money, they still outperform the traditional system.

Teacher Pay: Nationally, traditional school teachers have higher average salaries than charter school teachers. And while some of this is due to the effect that charters hire younger teachers, I have seen no research that indicates that, at scale, charters are picking off the best teachers by offering them unsustainable salaries.

Impact on Traditional Schools: Lastly, most research shows that charter schools have positive or neutral effects on traditional school achievement. Moreover, cities that have improved their educational systems over the past decade have often seen rising charter school enrollment during the same period. Washington D.C. and Denver stand out as primary examples of cities where all schools got better as charter schools expanded.

All boats rising – and not cannibalism – is the norm.

It appears that Summers is reasoning from anecdote rather research.

I am sure there are  some charter organizations that cream students and spend way above the public dollar (I can think of a few!), but these are outliers.

At scale, urban charter schools achieve more and spend less than traditional public schools.

Working outside the system is low impact and not leveraged with existing public funds

Summer’s second piece of advice – work outside the system rather than fix the system itself – is also flawed.

Yes, fixing the system is hard. But kids spend a lot of time in the system. It will be very difficult to improve public education if you ignore what happens to students from 8 AM to 3 PM for 13 years.

Moreover, to the extent that a philanthropist funds an outside the system intervention that works, the only way to scale the intervention is with more philanthropy or increased public revenues. There is no leverage with existing public dollars.

While I am not against raising additional public revenue for things that work, I think we should spend most of our energy improving the effectiveness of the dollars we already spend, especially given that systems level K12 interventions (like urban charter schools), are achieving success at scale.

If there was no evidence that the system could be fixed, I would tend to agree with Summers. But as more and more cities breakthrough and achieve citywide gains, the logic of working mostly outside the system is increasingly flawed. The one exception I’d make to this claim is pre-school, which has a reasonably strong evidence base and is increasingly funded with public dollars.

If you are a philanthropist who wants to improve public education in your city, please contact me 

In the event that Tyler’s question was not hypothetical in nature, and that there is a philanthropist in St. Louis who wants to donate a $100 million, I do hope she contacts me (neeravkingsland at gmail) rather than takes Summers’ advice.

I am a firm believer that philanthropy well spent can forever positively alter the trajectory of a city’s public educational system.

And while those of us advocating for systems level change still have much to prove, we now have numerous examples of cities achieving citywide improvements for their most at-risk students. Philanthropists should double down on their successes, evolve the model based on local conditions, and continue to fund further research so we can keep on learning.

High expectation vs. low expectation parent organizing

This is likely a crude distinction, but I think there’s a real difference between high expectations and low expectations parent organizing.

Low expectations parent organizing occurs when you simply meet parents where they are at, without having much urgency about tackling systems level issues.

For example, organizes might work for parents for a few years on issues like lunch quality, bus routes, and extracurricular activities.

If organizers and parents work hard and a few year later the lunches are a little better, what’s the point if the vast majority of the kids can’t read or do math on grade level, or if the school culture fails to build students with strong values?

This feels like low expectations: working too long on these issues is implicitly saying that parents are not smart enough to tackle the most pressing issues facing their children.

High expectations parent organizing starts with the premise that families can grasp systems level issues, and that the quicker they are engaged on important issues like teacher and school quality, the better.

I’ve had the opportunity to discuss really hard educational issues with families living in deep poverty. And while it’s surely true that they start from a deficit of policy knowledge, they tend to come up to speed quickly and, most importantly, can merry policy arguments with the brutal facts that they see day in and day out when the are forced to send their children to struggling schools.

Based on my experience (and I still have a lot to learn in this area), I’d say the following are the key components of great high expectations parent organizing:

  1. Organizers begin with the mindset that families can grasp and advocate for systems level policy solutions.
  2. Organizers provide unbiased (as much as feasible) educational classes and experiences to families so that families can grapple with systems level policy issues.
  3. Organizers both possess and cultivate a sense of urgency – so that educational experiences start leading to powerful systems level actions.
  4. Family leaders fairly quickly take the reigns in terms of determining the future policy and advocacy agenda.
  5. Family leaders increase their operational chops so that the actions and campaigns they are less reliant on external organizers.

Ultimately, this is a two step high expectations game: first, you need to believe that families can understand systems level issues, and second, you need to believe that they can lead the charge.

I’m still trying to get smarter in this area, so I hope that the organizers who read this blog  will correct errors in the comment section.

If you want to be a superintendent build a school district

I cross paths with many people who want to become a superintendent of a large city school district.

Most of these people feel that this is the ultimate leadership position when it comes to serving children in need.

When I ask why, they say: “that’s where the kids are.”

I usually say: “this is not an immutable condition.”

Charter leaders are building some of the largest school districts in the country 

The most scaled high-performing charter network, KIPP, serves nearly a 100,000 students.

Right now, KIPP is around the 40th biggest school district in the country.

I bet within a decade it will be in the top 10 biggest school districts in the country.

A few other CMOs are on track to serve 100,000 students within the decade as well.

Within 10-15 years, a quarter of the top 25 biggest school districts in the country may be charter networks.

You can spend 15 years building an amazing school district or 3 years trying to fix a broken one 

KIPP is about 20 years old. Given all we know now (thanks in part to KIPP and other early CMOs), new charter founders should be able to hit the 100,000 student mark in less time.

With a bunch of hard and a bit of luck, the best entrepreneurs in the country should be able to replicate KIPP’s success and build 100,000 student CMOs in 10-15 years.

Compare this to being a superintendent: you inherit a struggling school district and have on average about 2-4 years to try and make it better before you are pushed out.

A few incredible superintendents succeed in making a dent, but most don’t.

As a charter founder, so much more of your potential for impact is in your control. And if you get results your board generally won’t fire you; rather, they’ll encourage you to serve more students.

There are about 10-15 million students attending public school and living in poverty

If the high-performing charter community could build 100 school districts that each served 100K students, we could provide nearly all students living in poverty with a great public education.

Are there a 100 people (or teams) in this country that can build a 100K school district? I don’t know.

Leading a major charter network is an incredibly difficult job. We need to do all we can be doing to make it as sustainable as possible.

The future of educational opportunity in this country might depend on it.

[thanks to James Cryan and Norman Atkins for inspiring this post]

CREDO’s school closure research validates portfolio and golden tickets


CREDO just came out with a study on school closures. Matt Barnum gives a good write up in Chalkbeat (and continues to far surpass NYT and WAPO in his analysis of complicated research).

Achievement increases when you close low performing schools and students transfer to better schools 

Overall, the research increased my belief in the idea that great schools should expand and failing schools should be closed or transformed (the basis of the portfolio model).

My only reservation with this study is that it defined low-performing schools by absolute performance rather than growth in achievement; however, student achievement still grew when students moved from lower to higher absolute performing schools, so perhaps many of the low absolute schools were low growth schools as well.

The research adds to the body of evidence that shows: if you…

(1) Close lower performing schools;

(2) Increase the number of high-performing schools;

(3) Ensure students from the closed schools get into the higher-performing schools; then

(4) Educational opportunity will increase.

See below from CREDO on the student achievement effect of a student transferring from a closed school to a superior school.

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One other thing: this type of analysis doesn’t capture the positive effect of the failing school no longer existing; a city implementing these strategies should see additional gains from no new students ever having to attend the failing school.

“Golden ticket” policies can ensure students attending closed schools get into better schools

Cities that use unified enrollment systems can easily guarantee that students leaving closed schools have access to better schools by a “golden ticket” policy. This policy gives students exiting closed schools first access to any open seats in high-quality schools in the city.

While I find the policy name “golden ticket” to be crass, it’s a policy that can do wonders for educational equity.

Too often students in failing schools are shuffled from one underperforming school to another; a golden ticket policy can prevent this.

Should we support increased school closures in majority white communities?

Numerous commentators pointed out that schools with +80% minority students were more likely to be closed than schools that had lower minority enrollment.

Most took this as a sign of inequitable treatment toward minority communities.

However, a growing body of research indicates that school closure increases educational opportunity so long as student have access to better schools. And although I wish this wasn’t the case, my hunch is that majority white communities likely have a higher concentration of better schools than your average minority community: this means that school closures are likely to be even more effective in majority white communities.

My guess is a lack of closures in majority white communities is leading to reduced educational opportunity.

School closure is incredibly hard

While I believe that thoughtfully implemented school closure policies will benefit children, I know that closing schools is hard for students, families, educators, and politicians.

But sometimes doing the hard thing can help students.

And a growing body of evidence is pointing to the idea that a well implemented school closures is one of those hard things that can ultimately make things better for students and communities.


Lastly: thinking of everyone in Houston right now. Really hoping that friends, colleagues, and everyone else in city are ok.



The KIPP pre-K study doesn’t tell us if KIPP pre-k works

Mathematica just published a study on KIPP pre-k. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (where I work) funded the study.

The study was well designed and asked a very important question: does high-quality charter pre-k provide benefits above and beyond simply attending a  high-quality charter elementary school?

The policy implications of this question are important: if high-quality charter pre-k adds to the achievement of students who attend high-performing elementary charter schools, policies that support both early child funding and charter school growth could accelerate achievement gains.

However, if attending a high-quality charter pre-k has no effect beyond the impact of simply attending a high-quality charter elementary school, then our limited public resources may be best spent on expanding high-quality charter elementary schools and not devoting as much resources to pre-k.

In other words, it’s really important to understand if:

KIPP pre-K + KIPP elementary > KIPP elementary

Unfortunately, due to small sample sizes as well as sample attrition, the researchers were not able to answer this question.

While the effects of KIPP pre-K + elementary were larger than the effects of KIPP elementary, these results were not significant.

The researchers write:

In reading, the magnitude of the positive impact was larger for the pre-K cohort than the kindergarten cohort on both the Letter-Word and Passage Comprehension tests administered in grade 2 (by 0.20 and 0.06 standard deviation units, respectively). Neither of these differences is statistically significant; however, the study did not have sufficient power to detect differences of this magnitude. Thus, they may be suggestive of some additional benefit in reading resulting from an offer of admission to KIPP pre-K, above and beyond the impact of an offer to KIPP in kindergarten.

In math, however, the impacts for both samples are identical, suggesting no additional benefit of KIPP pre-K beyond the impact of a KIPP elementary school.

Below you can see the estimated (non-significant) impacts:


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So, for now, we still don’t know if KIPP pre-k adds any value over KIPP elementary school.

This is no knock on KIPP or the researchers, it’s just the consequence of the limitations of working with small sample sizes that are subject to attrition.

That being said, I do think some of my friends are playing a little fast and loose in over interpreting this study, and I think we all need to be honest about the fact that we don’t yet know if KIPP pre-k “works.”

Phase II of the charter and choice research agenda is extremely important

In a recent post, I summarized much of the research on charter school and high choice cities.

The short of it: there’s a strong body of evidence that urban charter schools outperform traditional schools, and a nascent body of evidence that thoughtfully implemented high choice cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

It’s worth taking a moment to celebrate this: the research on urban charter schools is an impressive body of work built on twenty years of studying the incredible efforts of educational entrepreneurs. It’s wonderful to see these schools working.


But as charters scale, additional questions need to be studied.

More specifically:

  1. Do urban charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomes?
  2. What happens to traditional schools when charter schools expand?
  3. What happens to students when under-enrolled traditional schools eventually close?
  4. What happens to cities that transition to majority charter systems?

A few recent studies have shown that charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomesthat charter school expansion can improve traditional schools; that student attending schools that are closed actually benefit from the closure so long as good new schools are being continually opened; and, as noted in the previous post, that majority charter cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

But there are also studies that indicate the opposite. Charter students in Texas did not have greatly improved life outcomes; students in Baton Rouge did not increase achievement after their schools were closed; and cities such as Detroit continue to struggle despite high charter penetration.


Personally, I most care about questions (1) and (4). If charter schools end up delivering better life outcomes, and majority charter cities work, I’d be willing to accept some interim negative effects of charter expansion and school closures. But I understand that the latter effects could cause hardship for families, and I’m heartened to see early examples that show that charter expansion can be coupled with gains for all students.

So here’s to holding out for the best scenario: I truly hope that phase II of the research agenda shows that charters increase life outcomes, that charter school expansion and failing school closure benefits all students, and that majority charter systems deliver benefits for all students.

Initial research indicates that this might be possible, which is really exciting.

Philanthropy is a low accountability sector (and what to do about it)

In terms of accountability to stakeholders for continued survival, my ranking of sectors is as follows (from most accountable to least accountable):

  1. Politics: the people you serve vote on your fitness every 2-4 years.
  2. For-profit: the people you serve must give you their money.
  3. Non-profit: the people who care about your issue must give you their money.
  4. Philanthropy: people must be willing to accept your money.

Depending on the specific office / company / non-profit, these rankings might shift a bit, but at the median I think they hold true.

If you disagree, think about this question: which sector is the most ruthless? This is likely where this is the greatest accountability.


At the structural level, philanthropy is an extremely unaccountable sector. All you have to do to stay in business is have someone be willing to accept your money!

This is not the fault of anyone involved, it’s just the nature of the beast.

I think a few things follow from this structural condition:

Culture matters: Philanthropists, like all humans, care about what people (especially their peers), think of them. Given that direct accountability is not as strong of a lever in philanthropy, culture pressures will play a bigger role. I think the rise in status of evidence based giving has been a positive development on this front.

Governance matters: Certain organizational structures, such as foundations whose governance outlive their founders by 100+ years, should probably limited, as this further decreases accountability in an already low accountability sector.

Rigorous exits matter: In most cases, philanthropy can’t cover the permanent costs of its subsidies, and over time government will generally pick up the tab of continued social programs. As such, it’s government that controls when philanthropy can exit, and the more rigorous government is in its spending, the more accountable philanthropy will be for producing results.


Again, I don’t think philanthropy is to blame for operating in it a low accountability sector.

It is what it is.

But citizens and governments can increase accountability, and they should do so when feasible.