Senior signing day: from a bar in Houston to the White House

Chip and Dan Heath are brothers and co-authors. Chip teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Dan teaches at Duke.

The most recent book is called The Power of Moments.

The book opens with a story. The story begins with Chris Barbic (a friend and a colleague) and Donald Kamentz sitting in a bar after another long day in the founding of YES Prep, a charter school network serving low income students in Houston. They were watching ESPN’s coverage of “senior signing day” – the event where star high school athletes announce where they’ll be attending college.

Chris and Donald believed what their students were accomplishing was every bit as impressive as what these star college athletes had accomplished.

So a few months later (charter schools founder work quickly), Yes Prep held it’s first senior signing day. Each senior took the stage and announced where he or she would attend college in the fall, dropping a t-shirt or pennant with their chosen school’s mascot. Leading up to the day, students kept their final school decision a secret from friends. After each announcement, the room erupted with applause. Everyone cried, and a tradition was born.

You can watch a YES Prep senior signing day highlight reel here:

Soon other schools charter school began to hear about YES Prep’s amazing event.  If YES Prep could create an amazing moment to celebrate their students, why couldn’t other schools do the same?

So steal they did.

Here’s Achievement First’s signing day (grab a tissue).

Here’s IDEA’s signing day video (grab some more tissues):

Then, in New Orleans, Josh McCarty, a friend and colleague of mine at New Schools for New Orleans, stole the idea for the whole city, and, I believe, we had the country’s first citywide signing day.

But we were soon out scooped, with senior signing day going to another (national) level: Michelle Obama made college signing day a signature part of her Reach Higher campaign. My guess is that Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under Obama, spread the idea, as he had spoken at YES’ signing day in 2010. In the video below, Michele Obama asks high school seniors to take selfies with their new college gear and tweet it with the hashtag #reachhigher.

Here’s a picture of her and her husband celebrating signing day together:

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Charter schools have been an incredible source of innovation for public schools. From Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion to Summit’s personalized learning platform to Achievement First’s open curriculum to Valor’s social learning program – great public charter schools are making all public schools better.

The senior signing day story, which begins in a bar in Houston and goes all the way to the White House, is an amazing example of what happens when you let great educators open new public schools.

Every once in a while, a school opening is the origin of a new national tradition.

So please: go to a senior signing day. And while you’re celebrating incredible students, give a silent thanks to Chris and Donald.

 

 

If you support neighborhood schools you also (unintentionally) support segregated schools

A reminder: for the foreseeable future, supporting neighborhood schools means de facto supporting segregated schools.

The reason is obvious: neighborhoods in our country are highly segregated.

I think our country would be better if our neighborhoods weren’t segregated, but I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

So if every kid goes to their neighborhood school, we will have segregated schools.

There are a couple ways out of this.

We could restructure enrollment and bussing rules to avoid segregation, but this would mean that a lot families would have to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods.

And  I don’t think it’s the rich families that are going to send their children to poorer neighborhoods.

So we’ll need to be bussing in low income students into rich neighborhoods. This might be the right thing to do, but that means a lot of low income students won’t be attending their neighborhood schools.

It also means we’ll likely have a lot of white flight, which, while unfortunate, is neither good for integration nor a city’s tax base.

The other option is to create all choice systems and allow schools to preference students in a way that increases socioeconomic integration (this could be done through a unified enrollment algorithm).

For this strategy to be successful, schools will have to proactively create enrollment rules that increased integration, and families will have to proactively choose schools with this mission.

This will obviously be a slower process than forced integration via non-choice bussing systems.

But I think it will be much more durable.

Ultimately, you can’t force people to integrate our current version of segregated schools if they don’t want to. They will either move or kick out the superintendent who forces it. As a country, we rightfully changed the laws that forced segregation, but we’re still left with the fact that many people don’t really want integration, at least not if it involves any bit of giving up of privilege.

So, no, you can’t force integration. But you can give educators the opportunity to say that their school will prioritize integration. And you can make it easier for families to choose these schools.

The road to school integration is not through neighborhood schools. And it’s not through forced enrollment patterns.

The road to school integration is through people actually wanting it, and for government to create open systems that allow these desires to be actualized.

If you do nothing, people will attend their segregated neighborhood schools.

If you force it, they will flee.

If you build it, they might come.

What can we learn from the most driven and knowledgeable public school parents?

This is the second blog post in a row about learning from experience and observation rather than research.

I sometimes anchor a bit too much on research and am trying to balance this mindset with a stronger observational approach.

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One common critique of charter schools is that they draw the most driven knowledgeable families away from the traditional public school system.

According to this argument, we should be a bit suspicious of charter school test score gains, and we should be very worried that the remaining students left in the traditional system will include very high concentrations of at-risk students.

I think there is some merit to the first critique of inflated test score effects, but there’s enough positive results from randomized controlled experiments of high-performing charter schools that I’m not too worried about it.

I do worry a lot about concentrating the hardest to reach students in a smaller and smaller number of traditional schools. This definitely occurred in New Orleans, where the last 20% of charter students were much harder to serve than the first 20%.

My hope is that this issue can be somewhat ameliorated by cities directly replacing their most underperforming schools and using unified enrollment systems to make finding a better school easier for all families.

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But there is something odd about critiquing charter schools based on the fact that they attract the most driven and knowledgeable parents.

Charter detractors are basically admitting that the more parents know the more likely they are to want to attend a charter school.

This is a strong argument for charter schools.

It would be useful to better understand why the most driven and knowledgeable parents are so drawn to charter schools. Is it because of increased test scores? A hope for better peers effects? Are they simply running away from something that is not working for their kid?

I’m not sure. The emerging research coming out of unified enrollment systems is helpful on this front, but it’s all correlational, so we should be cautious.

But the fact that the most driven and knowledgeable parents are seeking out charter schools increases my belief that charter schools are a positive force for families.

Sometimes simply watching what people do is a great way to learn.

What can we learn from school board meetings?

In forming opinions on policy, it’s good to balance research and lived experience.

Research is an invaluable tool in helping us test our beliefs, but the most rigorous research is limited to what can be measured, and not everything can be measured.

When it comes to public school policy, attending school board meetings has been a major part of my lived experience.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended two different types of school board meetings: elected school board meetings and non-profit charter school board meetings.

 

The elected school board meetings I’ve attended  range from dysfunctional (school board members screaming at each other) to misguided (school board members discussing random topics that have little to do with governing public schools) to sometimes useful (reasoned debate on systems level policy).

Unfortunately, I’ve attended many more dysfunctional and misguided elected school board meetings than I’ve attended useful elected school board meetings.

The non-profit charter school board meetings tend to be much more productive. More often than not, the board members are focused and knowledgeable. This is especially true of larger non-profit charter networks, where the board has been around for over a decade and governed through organization scaling.

Yes, I’ve attended a few dysfunctional charter school board meetings, but they are not the norm.

This lived experience in attending board meetings has shaped my policy views. Based on a decade of attending board meetings, I believe that non-profit boards will be better at governing schools than elected boards will be.

I do believe we need democratic oversight over our public schools. Elections allow us to debate values, and these values should shape how we oversee our public schools.This oversight can come in a variety of forms, from elected boards to mayoral control. The New Orleans elected school board, for example, oversees a nearly 100% non-profit charter schools system.

But while we need elections to debate values, we don’t need elections to govern individual or networks of schools.

My lived experience leads me to believe that this duty is best held by non-profit boards.

Most students in NOLA whose school is closed end up in one of their top choices for the following year. Here’s how.

This post from Ed Navigator is worth reading. It covers schools closures in New Orleans.

Over ten years after Katrina, and under an elected school board, New Orleans continues to selectively close underperforming schools.

I view this as a good thing, given the growing body of research that shows that school closures help kids when the students end up in better schools.

New Orleans uses a unified enrollment system to help kids get into better schools.

The unified enrollment system gives preference to students whose schools were closed the year before. If your school was closed, the algorithm bumps you to the top of the list for any school you want to get into.

Ed Navigator works with families whose schools have been closed, so that they can help select great schools.

The result?

This year, 87% of students who attended a closing school and used the enrollment system received on of their top three choices for the next school year.

94% of the students will now attend a school that is rated higher by the state’s grading system.

The system is by no means perfect. My biggest critique is that the state’s grading system still relies too heavily on absolute test scores (rather than growth). I also understand the counterarguments that government should never close schools and should instead let enrollment patterns (driven by parental choice) determine which schools grow and which close.

But I would rather have the New Orleans enrollment and closure system than just about any other big city system in the country.  In too many cities, really bad schools stay open for too long. And if anything happens to them, kids often end up in schools that are just as bad.

This is not what happens in New Orleans.

It’s also great to see Parag Pathak (and his colleagues) work in action. Parag recently won the John Bates Clark award in part because of his contributions to working on unified enrollment systems.

It’s rare that an idea goes from the ivory tower to think tanks to actual implementation by a democratically elected body to  helping citizens.

This is really great to see. And really great for kids in New Orleans.

Response to Matt Ladner and Jay Greene

Over at Jay’s blog, Jay and Matt wrote two critical posts of portfolio management and harbormasters (our team calls them quarterbacks).

Jay and Matt think differently than I do, have different political orientations, and are sharp. Their writing makes me smarter.

I also find their post titles, writing tone, and evidence analysis to be a bit over the top. They sometimes overstate their claims and under appreciate the other side of the argument.

In these two posts, Jay and Matt use NAEP charter sector gains in Arizona, Michigan, and Texas – as well as the mediocre NAEP scores seen in Louisiana’s charter sector – to argue that portfolio management and quarterbacks aren’t working.

I found their analysis to be overly narrow. Instead of taking some new evidence in and synthesizing this with the broad set of evidence available, they anchored on to one set of data points and made too strong of claims (especially in the titles of their posts).

Don’t Look at NAEP in Isolation 

Matt is right to point out that some states with fairly loose charter regulations saw a lot of charter gains in NAEP between 2009 and 2017.

I think this should modestly increase our belief that being loose on charter openings and closings can lead, over time, to a healthy charter sector.

But the story is not that clean.

This CREDO paper, which looked at charter school performance in Texas between 2011 and 2015, found a small positive effect in reading and no effect in math. Given that CREDO tracks individual students across time, and NAEP does not, the CREDO data should make us cautious in interpreting the NAEP gains as a huge victory.

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Another study found that it took Texas charters ten years to achieve the performance gains of their traditional school peers.

While it’s great to see the sector improving in Texas, perhaps with better regulation the sector wouldn’t have had to improve for ten years just to achieve neutral effects.

The story of the Texas charter sector is much more complicated than Matt’s piece indicated. The same is true for Arizona and Florida, where quasi-experimental research has found muted test score effects.

Given the different results of NAEP and CREDO, we should be trying to figure out the puzzle rather than claiming victory, as Matt tends to do.

Don’t Look at States in Isolation 

Looking at state level gains is not a great measure of whether portfolio and quarterbacks are working, as portfolio (to some extent) and quarterbacks (almost always) are city based endeavors.

For city based data, this CREDO study measured student learning effects in a bunch of cities across the country.

Washington D.C., Denver, New Orleans, and Newark all did very well. These cities are also some of the most mature portfolio cities.

Phoenix, Austin, El Paso, Forth Worth, Mesa, and San Antonio did not do well. These cities are all found in loose regulation states.

It hardly seems like a slam dunk to me that portfolio / quarterbacks are bad and loose regulation is good.

Of course, the CREDO analysis is not perfect: test scores aren’t everything and the virtual twin methodology may miss unobserved differences between students.

But looking at state based NAEP scores to make broad judgements on portfolio and quarterbacks is unwise, especially with so much other evidence available.

The portfolio / quarterback model seems to be doing some good in many cities.

Quarterbacks are a Step in the Right Direction  

Jay and Matt often criticize quarterbacks as vehicles for people who think they are smarter than everyone else (especially educators and families). I find this to be an overly simple critique.

Quarterback originated as a way to use expertise to aggregate and allocate philanthropy.

In many cities, philanthropists were funding low impact activities, often wasting it on the  pet projects of district leadership. A lot of money was spent for very little academic gain.

Quarterbacks have helped improve philanthropy: instead of just passively giving money to the district, philanthropists partner with expert management teams to try and launch and grow great non-profits.

I think this is a major improvement on the status quo. Of course, there are some drawbacks, and too much centralization of philanthropic capital poses risks. This is why I don’t think all of a city’s philanthropic capital should flow through one organization.

But quarterbacks are increasing, not decreasing, educator entrepreneurship and family choice. Yes, they do often use test score results selecting who to fund, but I suspect this will change if a better way to invest is developed over time.

In Sum

The NAEP data should not be ignored. It’s made me more open to the idea that looser regulations can lead to charter scale and quality, especially at the state level. And I found Matt’s data analysis to be quite helpful. I love it when smart people who think differently than me play with complex data sets and come to novel conclusions.

But I think there’s plenty of other state based evidence that should make us cautious, such as the CREDO Texas study.

I also think there’s a lot of evidence that the charter sectors in portfolio / quarterback cities are making a lot of gains. The NAEP data Matt and Jay site, which is state based and does not track individual students, is not convincing enough to make me deeply question our city based work.

All that being said, I look forward to reading more from Jay and Matt in the future.

I don’t take smart, critical friends for granted.

The best school district in the United States?

One of the joys of my job is the number of amazing emails that arrive in my inbox.

Below is an email (pasted with permission) from Scott Pearson, the head of the Washington DC Public Charter School Board.

On this blog, as well as on twitter, we debate a lot about regulation. We have a lot to figure out and these debates help me get smarter.

But leaders on the ground have to lead, always with imperfect information and complicated local contexts.

The DC Public Charter School Board has chosen to regulate the charter community fairly tightly on performance, but more loosely on other inputs. As Scott notes in his letter, over 40 charters have closed in Washington DC over the past decade. While I don’t know if this is right for every community, the DC charter community is providing a lot of great options for tens of thousands of children, and they have undoubtedly made DC a better city.

The continuity of the DC charter community’s success also reinforces my belief in the importance of non-profit governance. It’s hard to think of a better school district in the country, and I’m highly confident that a primary key to their success is their structure: the DC Public Charter School Board regulates and non-profits operate.

It’s a winning formula for kids.

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Dear Colleagues,

We have faced nearly a year’s worth of bad news about DC Public Schools, from high teacher turnover, to faked suspension data, from inflated graduation rates, to the resignation of the DCPS chancellor, to residency fraud.  This steady drumbeat has undermined confidence in our traditional public schools – far more than is warranted in my opinion.  DCPS is a vastly better school system than it was in 2007 when Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson took the reins.

But I’m writing today about the other half of public schools in DC, the 120 public charter schools serving 43,340 students – nearly half (47.5%) of DC’s public school students.  Our story is mostly one of continued success, growth, popularity, and quality improvement.  I feel the need to write this because I fear that the bad news about DCPS is drowning out what continues to be a remarkable story of charter school success in our nation’s capital.

First, it’s important to say that not one of these bad news stories has been about public charter schools.  Our graduation rates check out – because for years the DC Public Charter School Board has audited the transcript of every graduating senior.  Our discipline data has never been questioned.  And there have been no allegations that anybody has jumped the lottery queue at a DC charter school.

Of course, we’re not perfect. In a sector as diverse as ours there will be unflattering news to uncover.  But at least so far none of the year’s bad news has touched DC’s charter sector.

Second, our quality keeps improving.   The NAEP “flatline” story just doesn’t apply to DC’s charter schools, as David Osborne and Emily Langhornewrite in The 74.  We were up this year in three of four grade/subject areas, with fourth-grade reading scores climbing five scale score points.  That’s more than any state in the nation.  And over ten years our growth overall is faster than any other state or district.  Charter scale scores have grown 17 points in 4th-grade math, 19 points in 4th-grade reading, and 12 points in 8th-grade math.  Each of these represents over a year’s worth of learning gains.   Only in 8th-grade reading are our scores disappointing, down 2 points over the past ten years and lagging far behind our big-city peers.

Our school leaders deserve much of the credit for this growth, but the authorizer gets some credit, too.  Since 2007 we have overseen the closure of 40 low-performing charter schools, all the while aggressively supporting growth for our highest-performing schools.

Third, our improvements are not driven by a change in our demographics.  Charter schools continue to enroll higher percentages of black and low-income students than does DC Public Schools.  And charters schools now educate the same percentage of students with disabilities as does DCPS – and higher percentages of our most disabled children.

Fourth, even as our quality improves, our schools have made remarkable progress reducing out of school suspensions and expulsions.  Out of school suspension rates are down by half since 2011-12, to under 7%.  And expulsions are down over 80% to less than 0.25% – about the national average.  We’ve achieved this through transparency and communications, not through mandates.  (Though, disappointingly, our city council is now threatening to regulate school discipline.)

Finally, demand keeps growing.  Despite the charter board adding nearly 9,000 charter school seats since 2013-14, the number of unique families on charter school waitlists has risen from 7,205 in April, 2014, to 11,317 in April, 2018.  Two-thirds of our charter schools saw their waitlist length increase from last year to this year.   Waitlists are in one sense a measure of our success because it shows families want our schools.  But is also a measure of our failure – and that of the District government – to provide our residents with enough quality schools and the facilities to house them.  We need to do better.

Thank you for reading, and please reach out if there is more information or context I can provide.

Scott Pearson

Executive Director

DC Public Charter School Board