More Money or More Charter Schools?

I review some of the recent research in a post at Education Next.

Here’s some math from the post:

Increasing Funding by Even 10% is Insanely Expensive

Consider a hypothetical town with 50,000 students, all of them who are in poverty, and a per-pupil allocation of $10,000.

Over ten years, increasing per-pupil by 10% will cost the town a half a billion dollars.

To put the costs in context: on average, it costs around $1,000,000 to launch a new charter school that serves 500 students.

This puts the cost of the charter intervention at roughly $100,000,000.

Also: the charter costs are one-time costs.

So over a ten-year period, the total bill for increasing funding by 10%: $500 million.

The total cost for scaling urban charters to serve all 50,000 students: $100 million.

For a fifth of the cost, you probably get 3-5X the achievement impact.

Do read the whole piece.

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

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Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

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Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.

Hastings Fund donates $50,000 to ACLU

The Hastings Fund was created with the mission of ensuring that every child in this country can attend an amazing school.

While we remain focused on this mission, we know that education is not the only issue affecting families in this country.

The recent executive orders signed by President Trump threaten to break American families apart, as well as deprive child refugees from seeking opportunity in our nation.

Future executive orders may do immense harm to the Dreamers who are already striving in our schools.

To help fight against these attacks on our country’s values, we’re donating $50,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

This is the Hasting Fund’s first non-educational donation.

A weak SIGnal: flawed research means we don’t know if SIG worked

I have a piece in Education Next about the study that came out the $7 billion federal school turnaround program.

Everyone is saying that the study proves SIG didn’t work.

I disagree.

My main argument is here:

In detailing these results, the authors note:

“The smallest impacts our benchmark approach could detect ranged from 0.19 to 0.22 standard deviations for test score outcomes, from 0.15 to 0.26 standard deviations for high school graduation, and from 0.27 to 0.39 standard deviations for college enrollment.”

Now, look back up at urban charter effects and you’ll see the three year results in math are about at the floor of what the SIG study could detect, and the results in reading are much lower than what the SIG study could detect (the SIG study also tracked children for 3 years).

So even if SIG achieved the same effects as urban charter schools the study may not have been able to detect these effects. 

It seems pretty unfair for charter (or voucher) champions to call SIG a failure when SIG might have very well achieved near the same results as urban charter schools.

My conclusion:

Until I see results that show that SIG worked, I won’t change my prior belief that SIG funds would have been better spent on high-quality charter growth.

Moreover, neither the existing research base nor theory warranted a $7 billion spend on district turnarounds, so even had the intervention worked I still would consider it a lucky outcome on an ill-advised bet.

But I also won’t claim that SIG failed.

Due to poor research design, we simply don’t know if that’s true.

The study authors, reporters, and commentators should walk back their strong claims on SIG’s failures.

At the same time, we should all keep advocating for government investment amounts to be in line with the existing evidence base.

If we have no reason to believe something will work, we should not spend $7 billion.

Too often, moonshots garner more status then they deserve.

Read the the whole piece here.

What if everything you believe about education is wrong?

When I first started think about increasing educational opportunity, I had a lot of beliefs, and, given the opportunity, I was willing to act on any of them.

Now I have fewer beliefs and am only willing to act on them under very specific circumstances.

I. Acting on Limited Beliefs in New Orleans  

As an undergrad and law student, I had a lot of beliefs on education policy. If you named an education policy topic, I had a strong opinion.

By the time I was working deeply in New Orleans, I was, for the most part, only acting on two of these beliefs:

(1) Starting and scaling high-quality charter schools (generally based on the high expectations / high support model); and

(2) Recruiting as much high-quality talent as possible (generally measured by leadership potential, undergraduate selectivity, and GPA).

Those seemed like the two most important near-term problems to solve in New Orleans.

Eventually, I also started working on systemwide regulatory issues, as we had to figure out how to govern an all charter school system.

II. So Much Conventional Wisdom (on All Sides) Was Wrong 

10 years later, we’ve a learned that New Orleans achieved dramatic student achievement results while, at the same time, upending much of the conventional wisdom of education policy.

The Education Research Alliance has done a bunch of great research that should humble pundits and educators alike; some highlights below:

Popular Belief #1: Experienced Teachers are Better

New Orleans increased student achievement while the % of teachers with less than 5 years of experience skyrocketed, and the % of teachers with over 20 years of experience plummeted.

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Popular Belief #2: Teacher Credentialing Matters

New Orleans increased student achievement while the % of teachers with no, temporary or, the lowest level of certification (C/1) skyrocketed, and the % of teachers with advanced credentials (A/3 and B/2) plummeted.

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Popular Belief #3: Teacher Turnover is Bad

New Orleans increased student achievement while teacher turnover significantly increased.

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Popular Belief #4: Education Choice Markets Will Fail Due to Information Problems

A continuing criticism of choice based reforms is that parents will make poor decisions due to being incapable of understanding school quality. In New Orleans, student achievement (SPS score) was one of only a few factors that strongly increased the likelihood a family would choose a school in the open enrollment system.

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Popular Belief #5: School Choice Only Benefits a Select Group of Choosers

A continuing criticism of choice based reforms is that only the active choosers will get into the schools they want. In New Orleans, 75% of families were matched with one of their top three choices.

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Popular Belief #6: School Choice Increases Student Mobility

Numerous commentators have argued that school choice will cause significant increases in student mobility. New Orleans moved to an all choice system and student mobility decreased.

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Popular Belief #7: School Closure Harms the Children Attending the Closed School

In New Orleans, students attending schools that were closed (intervention schools) saw their student achievement increase significantly in the subsequent years.

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Popular Belief #8: Money is Best Spent “in the Classroom”

In comparison to other districts, New Orleans increased student achievement while spending more on administrative costs and less on instructional costs.

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III. We Might be Wrong About More

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of the above caused the student achievement gains in New Orleans.

Rather, I’m only pointing out that New Orleans saw some of the most dramatic student achievement gains in our country’s recent history while doing a bunch of things that you’re not supposed to do.

I’m sure we’ll learn more over the coming decade.

Lastly, New Orleans is one city with a very unique set of circumstances, we don’t yet know how similar types of reforms will work in other cities.

IV. Keep Your Policy Identity Small and Your Problem Solving Identity Large 

The more strongly held beliefs you have on education policy, the more likely you are to (1) be wrong (2) find it hard to admit you’re wrong and (3) mandate broad solutions that don’t work in many circumstances.

The more strongly oriented you are toward solving problems, the more likely you are to (1) be right in your specific circumstance (2) change your mind if you’re wrong and (3) be willing to admit that your solution might not work in other contexts.

V. Help Build Systems that Increase Problem Solving Capacity

Given how much we don’t know, as well how many problems are context specific, one of our primary policy goals should be to experiment with system level structures that increase the power and ability for educators and families to solve problems.

I view New Orleans as one example of how a system can be structured to empower families and educators to solve problems.

Hopefully we’ll build more examples over the coming years.

What helps poor children more: increasing the EITC or increasing educational funding?

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*Note: I’m still working through all this research. If I’ve made a mistake, let me know!

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In a previous post, I argued that after a certain expenditure level, call it $15K a child, my guess is that families would be better off with additional funds as cash transfers. So a district that spends $20K a student (D.C, Newark, New York, etc.) would best serve families by spending $15K per student and sending $10K in cash to a two child home.

Here’s  a similar policy question: if taxpayers are willing to spend extra money to help poor children, should they increase the earned income tax credit (giving working low-income parents increased money) or raise educational funding?

Last month, Kevin Carey and Elizabeth Harris wrote a NYT column summarizing the most recent research on increasing education funding. Their conclusion: money probably does increase test scores.

Unfortunately, they did not the review the research on what happens when you give similar amounts of money to families via other transfers, such as the EITC.

The Effects are Within the Same Range

While none of the research is an exact science, research on the EITC (see a summary here) finds that children under the age of 12 see increases of ~.06-.1 SD per $1,000 increase in the EITC (cumulative full schooling impact).

Rothstein finds that low income districts increase their performance by ~.1 SD per $1K increase in funding (cumulative 10 year impact).

And while these rough estimates find a slightly higher impact for education spending, remember that education spending costs twice as much for a two child family.

The EITC estimates are based on $1K per family, while the public spending estimates are based on $1K per child.

Also: families don’t use the EITC every year, so while increasing spending via education expenditures is a constant expense, the EITC is a variable expense that is only used when families are in poverty.

Because of these factors, my hunch is that the ETIC effects are actually higher per $ spent, but for sake of argument, let’s call it a wash.

The EITC is Well Targeted, Education Spending is Not

Assuming equal effects, the reason the EITC is more efficient in that is better targeted: only poor families get the increases.

Most state funding formulas, on the other hand, give increased funding to districts, not individual students.

This means that giving $1K per student in additional funding to low-income districts is spread across all students in the district, not simply low-income students.

Most importantly, it means that low-incomes students in non-low-income districts don’t receive the benefit.

Rothstein notes as much in his study, writing:

Courts and legislatures can evidently force improvements in school quality for students in low-income districts. But there is an important caveat to this conclusion. As we discuss in Section VI, the average low-income student does not live in a particularly low-income district, so is not well targeted by a transfer of resources to the latter. Thus, we find that finance reforms reduced achievement gaps between high- and low-income school districts but did not have detectable effects on resource or achievement gaps between high- and low-income (or white and black) students. Attacking these gaps via school finance policies would require changing the allocation of resources within school districts, something that was not attempted by the reforms that we study.

Unless States Change Their Funding Formulas, Transfers > Increased Spending

In summary: transfers are targeted at all poor families in a jurisdiction, while education funding increases are generally only targeted at poor families living in low-income districts.

Assuming the research holds on both transfers and education spending – and we continue to see similar effects – then transfers seem to be the much better option, as they reach low-income families in all jurisdictions.

More Research Needed

I view the question of wage subsidies vs. universal basic income vs. increased public services to be one of the most important policy topics out there.

Hopefully we can learn more about the cost / benefits with further research.

What social entrepreneurs can learn from Medium’s business model shift

Medium is trying to change its business model.

I. For-Profit Business Models 

In the for-profit market, you can only sustainably solve problems when the solutions generate profits.

Overarching visions (bringing the world’s information to everyone) are brought a little bit closer through sound business models (ad driven internet searches).

The profit requirement is useful in that it ensures entrepreneurs add value to other people in their quests for solving great problems.

But the profit requirement is also limiting: an entrepreneur might complain that the quickest path to solving the far problem is not solving one close problem after another.

II. Non-Profit Business Models 

In the non-profit market, philanthropy often determines what problem an entrepreneur can try to solve.

This is useful in that philanthropy is not bound by solving profit generating problems.

But the philanthropic model is also limiting: when there is no need to add value to other people, bad endeavors can go on for far too long, thereby reducing the amount of funds available to good endeavors.

 

III. The Risk of Each Model 

In the for-profit market, entrepreneurs need to guard against the fact that solving close problem after close problem may get them off the path from solving their far problem.

This is what Medium is struggling with.

In the non-profit market, entrepreneurs need to guard against the fact that trying to solve the far problem will lead them down a path where lack of accountability prevents them from adding any value to others (despite expending large amounts of resources).

A lot of social entrepreneurs and philanthropists struggle with this. They set out to solve far problems without understanding the near problems.

Most often, solving near problems better trains you to solve the far problem.

Social entrepreneurs should keep their eyes on the far problem, but they ignore near problems at their own peril.

Medium had the discipline to recognize that they were solving close problems that were not leading them to solve their far problem.

Social entrepreneurs need to have the same discipline in the opposite direction: they need to recognize when an elaborate plan to solve a far problem is a wasteful quest that ignores real people’s acute needs.