The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth

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Going from 16K to 18K in Annual Wages 

Last week, I did a post on Fryer and Debbie’s excellent new study on the Texas charter sector.

I emailed the authors about my hypothesis that the growth of high-quality charters – even if they aren’t that much better than average traditional schools – could still be of great value if these new charters displaced chronically failing schools.

Roland was kind enough to respond but pushed that even if my hypothesis is true, the story still might be a depressing one.

His point: the numbers from his study indicate that even if we replaced all these failing schools with high-performing charters, we’re still only talking about ~1-2K in extra earnings per year for these students.

Given that many of these students end up lower income brackets, this might mean going from 16K to 18K a year in annual salary. Hardly game changing in terms of life outcomes – and surely not a ticket to the middle class.

Confronting this Potential Reality

When a study tells you what you don’t want to hear, the first reaction is often to not deal with it (in some ways I did this in my previous post).

So everyone in education reform needs to deal with this potential reality: there is some possibility that the best that education reform has to offer can only, on average, move a student from 16K to 18K a year.

Of course, this is only one study of one state. We don’t yet know if these numbers will hold under different contexts, methodologies, or timeframes.

But, at the very least, your belief that a great school can radically increase wages should be a little lower after reading this study.

Other Considerations

I’m still mulling this over, but in conversations with Roland and folks I work with, certain ideas bubbled up:

The data doesn’t capture recent improvements: A lot of the best charters have only really started focusing on college and career over the past 5 years or so. As such, the students who received the full suite of redesigned high schools, counseling, and career support aren’t represented in this study. To the extent you believe the best charters are problem solving machines, you might believe this to be true.

The work is generational: Perhaps reformed schools can only, on average, push students who would have been in deep poverty to achieve average poverty / lower middle-class status. And perhaps their children, who will grow up in better educated environments, will the be ones  to more fully make it into the middle class. But this story could be unwound through raised expectations: if we told kids they were going to make it to the middle class, and they don’t, how will they react?

Colleges are the bottleneck: Perhaps these real gains in learning are being wasted by ineffective two year and four year colleges – and that without higher education reform we won’t be able to translate K-12 gains into wage increases.

Society is tough: Just because you’re better educated doesn’t mean you can overcome racism, lack of social capital, and an over-reliance on signaling.

More interventions are needed: Great schools can’t solve everything; interventions that work on family poverty, health, and parenting are needed for schools to really move kids as far as they need to be moved.

The schools aren’t really that good: A bunch of teaching to the test just jacks up crystallized knowledge but doesn’t really give kids the human capital qualities they need to succeed in the workforce.

What Do you Do in the Face of Ambiguity?

Leaders need to make hard decisions in the face of incomplete data.

Often times, this means relying on some combination of probabilistic thinking, intuition, ideology, and philosophy.

But, at some point, you need to walk away if the data is telling you what you’re doing is not working.

I don’t think one study is enough to walk away from the promise of urban charter schools, especially since they’ve achieved so much on less penultimate markers.  I think there’s a lot more experimentation and research that needs to be done to help us understand if we can translate academic gains into wage growth.

But it’s worth thinking about when you would walk away.

Because if there is no point at which you’d walk away, then what do you really stand for?

An Alternative Interpretation of the Fryer / Dobbie Texas Charter School Study

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Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie just published an excellent study on the Texas charter school sector.

But it’s unclear to me that they captured a very important implication of their research.

I. Study Overview

The study found that charter schools in Texas, on average, have no impact on test scores and a slightly negative impact on earnings.

More interestingly, the study found that No Excuses charter schools increase test scores but only have a small and statistically insignificant impact on earnings.

Their paper ends with this cautionary statement:

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II. Walking Through Low Effect Size and High Effect Size Schools 

The famous Anna Karena quote goes something like this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I think the opposite is true of schools.

When I visit low effect size schools, I am often saddened by the level of dysfunction. Students walk the halls aimlessly, teachers seem woefully unprepared for working in a low-income environment, and the principal generally spends her day putting out fires.

When I visit high effect size schools, I’m often struck by how different they are. While most hit the basics of a calm culture and thoughtful instruction, they vary greatly in atmosphere, curriculum, and staffing models – as well as the overall student experience. A Summit school is very different than a Collegiate Academies school, despite both achieving high effects. Even No Excuses schools can feel fairly different from each other, though they do tend to gravitate around some core practices (that Fryer has helped illuminate).

I also think I would struggle mightily in a blind walk through of .1 and .2 effect size schools; it is highly unlikely I would be able to tell you which school has which effect.

So while it’s easy to identify schools that are a total mess, it’s a little difficult to tease out what’s going well in non-dysfuctional schools, as well as to distinguish between high-performing and very-high-performing schools.

III. Bad Schools Have Bad Effects on Earnings, Good Schools Have Neutral Effects on Earnings

I found this to be the most interesting chart in the study:

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What you see here is that going from (-.2) to (0) effect really matters for earnings. This is indicated by the rising slope in the bottom left quadrant.

Interestingly enough, once you hit (0) effect, going to (.2) effect has little effect on earnings. This is indicated by the relatively flat slope in the the bottom right quadrant.

In short, getting rid of bad schools could have a major effect on the earnings of graduates in an education system (assuming our economy is not a zero sum signaling game).

In a sense, this fits my experiences in spending time in schools. It’s very easy to see how a totally dysfunctional environment could negatively impact students, whereas it’s a little more difficult to tease out the additional impact on students once the basics are in place.

IV. Portfolio Management: What Happens When Charter Schools Grow?

In a world where states and districts are managing their portfolio of schools, the growth of functional schools will be accompanied by the phasing out of dysfunctional schools.

In the best possible world, the growth of new effective charter schools will be accompanied with a reduction in under-performing traditional and charter schools.

Overtime, a system can potentially rid itself of failing schools.

This is what happened in New Orleans.

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While the above analysis is more weighted toward absolute scores (rather than effect sizes), my hunch is that the story would stand with effect sizes as well (I have not run this data yet).

I think much of New Orleans’ gains were driven by the phasing out of failing schools.

It is much less clear to me that schools in New Orleans, to date, have figured out to crack the code of creating schools that are radically superior to your average functioning traditional school.

Hopefully they will.

V. No Excuses Charter Schools May Allow Us to Eliminate Failing Schools and Raise the Aggregate Earnings of Low-Income Students in the United States 

So another way to interpret this study is that the growth of No Excuses charter schools could be the key to eliminating failing schools and raising wages of low-income students who would have otherwise have attended failing schools.

Two things would have to hold true for this to be the case: (1) government action or family choice lead to the phasing out of failing schools and (2) No Excuses schools can maintain their neutral effects on earnings even if they enroll the most challenging students from the phased out failing schools.

In other words, for now, the importance of charter school growth might be much more directly tied to eliminating failing schools rather than vastly outperforming functional district schools.

If this is right, No Excuses charter schools might still very well be the most important education reform of the past quarter century.

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?

History

First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.

Post Vacation Reflections

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I just got back from vacation. Despite some bouts of unfortunate weather, I climbed Gothic Mountain – or, more accurately, 98% of Gothic Mountain – the last 2% was a little too risky for my tastes.

Some reflections below:

1. Less Twitter: I’m going to try and cut back from Twitter. While it is an extremely valuable source of information, it also encourages shallow thinking, tribal affiliations, and consumption of information that will be meaningless in a day or two. Out on the trail, I could feel my mind slowing down – there was less speed, more curiosity, and deeper thinking. I was also shocked to see how not much had changed in the week I was offline – Clinton did that, Trump did this – and life goes on…

2. Less Caffeine: Caffeine, like Twitter, speeds up the mind and, in my case, makes me a bit anxious. Before going on vacation, I was “on” caffeine for most of the day, which I think led to less rigorous thinking and more snap judgments. I’m going to try and move one cup of coffee in the morning and 1 cup of green tea in the afternoon.

3. Deeper Reading: I read a lot. And at my worst all I am doing is scanning headlines and abstracts for information that confirms my beliefs or hunches. I need to spend more time deeply thinking through less sources of information.

4. Getting My Head Around the Corner: I feel like I have spent the last 3-4 months trying to peak around the corner of where the next 20 years of education are heading – and how this aligns to my current work. It is unclear to me that I’m operating with the right long-term strategy; or, rather, perhaps what I’m working in is an important part of the puzzle but I can’t yet see the full puzzle, which is frustrating.

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.

Is Philanthropic Capital Scarce?

Over at this blog, Albert Wenger has been arguing that private capital is no longer scarce.

He writes:

This means that global investable capital exceeds by 2x the capital required to operate the economy. In fact working capital needs have been declining substantially due to just in time manufacturing, faster electronic payments and better working capital management (eg. through C2FO). If you can reduce the working capital needs of firms by 25% you would move investable capital to close to 3x of required operating capital for the economy.

That means we have massive amounts of capital available to invest in new endeavors. It explains why interest rates are low and there is fairly little that central banks can do about it unless they figure out a way to dramatically reduce investable capital – they can certainly shorten their balance sheets but even that impact is likely to relatively small in the overall scheme of things (eg US Fed about $3 Trillion).

Another way to think it about it is this: we have an oversupply of money and an undersupply of good ideas to invest in.

I’ve been in philanthropy for a year now, and Albert’s thesis led me to reflect on philanthropy.

Broadly speaking, philanthropy can be used to either (1) directly alleviate suffering or (2) help solve complex problems.

For the foreseeable future, there will not be an oversupply of capital to directly alleviate suffering.

If a philanthropist wants to save lives and reduce suffering, there is plenty to invest in; and there is always the option of simply giving cash to people living in poverty.

Many philanthropists, however, also desire to support efforts to solve complex social problems; i.e, to try and create better education, health, and criminal justice systems – or to invest directly in technological solutions in areas such as energy.

The goal here is to reduce future suffering rather than simply alleviate current suffering.

It is not easy to solve such problems. In my work, my days are not chalk full of meetings with people pitching tested, operationally scalable, and financially sustainable interventions that will lead to major improvements in our country’s educational system.

Working in areas such as education, criminal justice, and health is extremely difficult, and scalable solutions are hard to find.

So perhaps Albert’s thesis, in some form, is beginning to hold true for philanthropy.

For this second part of philanthropy’s mission – working to solve complex social problems – it is unclear to me that capital is scarce.

If this is true, it has numerous implications for philanthropists, non-profits, and government.

If I’m able to wrap my head around these implications and organize them in a thoughtful manner, I’ll write a follow-up post.

 

Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

I’ve previously written on being bullish about the potential of ed-tech platforms.

Currently, both Summit Public Schools and Alt Schools are leading the way on developing platforms that may eventually be used by thousands of schools across the country.

Many people are drawn to ed-tech platforms because they can: (1) support teachers to curate innovative lessons and execute more personal coaching; and (2) allow children to learn at their own pace and explore their intellectual interests.

In short, ed-tech platforms are about empowerment.

But it is unclear to me that empowerment will be the only way that ed-tech platforms improve education.

I think they might also improve education by restricting educators and students.

I’m still trying to work through this, but see below for a graphic representation:

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The goal of many (thought not all) personalized and ed-tech enthusiasts is to move from wherever they are to the top right corner.

This vision has much to be said for it, and under the right conditions it very well may work.

But there is also another option – one based more on restriction than empowerment. A couple of great educators have been pushing me to think about this path as well.

The argument for restriction goes something like this:

  1. The No Excuses charter movement has learned a lot about what it takes to increase the learning of students who are multiple grade levels behind.
  2. It will be very difficult to scale No Excuses charter schools due to human capital, operational, and political constraints.
  3. Professional development has proved generally ineffective in spreading the practices of No Excuses charters to mediocre charter and traditional schools.
  4. A tech platform that utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools – and then frees up teachers to do scripted small group and individual tutoring – could be a way to scale the core components of the No Excuses model while bypassing traditional human capital, operational, and political constraints.

Under this scenario, the goal is to move from the bottom-middle row (I do think No Excuses charters are empowering students more than before) to the top-middle row (with more scripted curriculum and teaching structure preventing this model from being ed-tech progressive).

In this model, the tech platform is really a backend way to scale a high-performing whole school model, in that the platform would dictate curriculum, assessments, pacing, and staffing.

Ideally, this packaged model would only take up 3-4 hours a day, and there could still be plenty of time for true project based instruction, extracurriculars, etc.

In summary: perhaps there is a (mostly) best way to teach basic reading and math, and, perhaps, a tech platform can scale this (mostly) best way.

And maybe the “big data” from such a platform could further evolve the (mostly) best way.

I’m not really sure. All feedback welcome.