Back to the future: reflections on returning to New Orleans

I recently spent a week in New Orleans.

I lived in New Orleans for most of 1998-2015, save for a few years away at law school. Simply landing at the airport brings back a lot of emotions.

My friends in New Orleans were mostly my education colleagues. So catching-up with friends also means catching-up with amazing education and civic leaders.


My week in New Orleans was a shot in the arm.

In many cities it is becoming difficult to empower educators. In Los Angeles the school board just voted to ask the state to make it illegal to open new non-profit schools for the remainder of the year. Many hope to extend this to five years, if not forever.

In other cities advocates have thwarted creating easy to use online enrollment systems that can help families find great schools for their children.

These efforts are couched in the language of social justice. But their impact will not be just: educators will not be able to create, and parents will not be able to access, better public schools.

New Orleans stands apart from these cities. By next year, 100% of schools in the city will be governed by non-profit organizations. Each year, families can access the city’s online enrollment system to find a good fit for their children.

Writing in The New York Times, David Leonhardt  covered research showing large academic gains across the city, as well as positive trends in high school graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and postsecondary completion.

New Orleans citizens also have regained control of their schools. An elected board oversees the public education system. And the education leadership of the city is beginning to better reflect the students the schools serve. The school district is again black led. Patrick Dobard, the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, is putting forth a great vision for the city.


As I work across the country, a lot of people are quick to tell me that the the education transformation in New Orleans could never happen in their city, nor would they want it to.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m too conciliatory in my response. I always say that every city is different; that each city needs to blaze its own path. This is of course true and it is why I say it.

But I think from now on instead of my first response being “every city is different,” I’m going start with “why not?”

I want to be more direct because I think a part of the reason people dismiss New Orleans is that it relieves them of the burden of exploring if the best solution might be the solution they don’t want to deal with.

Yes, the New Orleans path might not be right for every city. But New Orleans is the only majority African-American student city in the nation to rank in the top ten for most academic growth between 2009 and 2015

If you’re a city leader trying to make public education better for low-income families, you should study New Orleans, not write it off.

And I would definitely not hold New Orleans up as a future to be avoided at all costs. Those advocating against non-profit schools claim that the private operation of public schools will ruin public education.

In New Orleans the public schools are operated by private non-profit organizations.

But public education has not been ruined. It has been revitalized and depoliticized.

Instead of worrying about the next top down mandate, educators can build enduring institutions that will serve students well for decades.

Instead of fretting about whether the next school board election will lead to strategic chaos, district leaders can thoughtfully evolve their oversight of public schools.

Instead of fearing that the only way to get into a good public school is to be able to afford an expensive house, families have much more equitable access to public schools in the city.

If this is the hell of privitization, what word should we use to describe the chaos of public education systems in Houston, Nashville, and so many other cities across the country?


I don’t know if my returning to New Orleans was going back to our country’s future. The odds are surely against it.

And of course New Orleans has thousands of more problems to solve in its journey to create an amazing public school system, both in terms of improving its K12 system and expanding postsecondary options.

But what city is better equipped to solve its next wave of challenges? I can’t think of any.

If you’re feeling beat down about your city or country, I suggest a trip down to NOLA.

In so many ways, it will lift your spirits.


Julia Galef interviews me on the Rationally Speaking podcast

I just did a podcast with Julia Galef of Rationally Speaking.

You can listen here.

We cover: New Orleans, the evidence base behind urban charter schools, common critiques of charter schools, how to balance evidence and lived experience, what we do know and don’t know about what happens when charters expand, what we do know and don’t about what parents want…. and more.

Here is a teaser:

Juli: Right. Has anyone yet proposed a nudge system, where we try nudge parents to pick the schools that actually improve scores more?

Neerav: There are experiments being run right now about how you show information to parents in these systems, and figuring out what that means. Now, again, you want a balance. Do you know what the right thing to show is? Because if you’re nudging, that means you have an opinion on how parents should be making decisions.

Julia: Right.

Neerav: Versus, do you want to be a little more humble and say, “We’re just gonna show the information as neutrally as we can and let you know”? Those are pretty complicated decisions for policymakers, on how to design choice systems.

Julia is an excellent interviewer.

If you have 30 min at the gym, on a walk, or during your commute – give it a listen.

Being less racist and sexist may account for 25% of increased economic output in the United States over past 50 years

Two of the most important goals of a liberal society are to treat people fairly and to increase economic productivity.

Treating people fairly increases the chance that individuals and communities can  flourish.

Increasing economic productivity usually leads to better overall health, wealth, and happiness.

It’s possible for these two goals to be at odds.

When it comes to racism and sexism in America, the goals don’t seem at odds.

This recent paper found that the United States saw major economic gains by being less racist towards African-Americans and less sexist toward woman.

It used to be the case that most leading professionals were white men. This is less true today.

The authors of the paper explore what we can draw from this change:

 In 1960, 94 percent of doctors and lawyers were white men. By 2010, the fraction was just 62 percent. Similar changes in other highly-skilled occupations have occurred throughout the U.S. economy during the last fifty years. Given the innate talent for these professions has unlikely changed differentially over time across groups, the change in the occupational distribution since 1960 suggests that a substantial pool of innately talented blacks and women in 1960 were not pursuing their comparative advantage. We examine the effect on aggregate productivity of the remarkable convergence in the occupational distribution between 1960 and 2010 through the prism of a Roy model. About one-quarter of growth in aggregate output per person over this period can be explained by the improved allocation of talent.

The paper details some powerful anecdotes to make their case.

For example, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952; despite being ranked third in her class, the only private sector job she could get after graduating was as a legal secretary.

In teasing out what specific changes made things better, the authors consider three possibilities:

Changes in preferences; ie, there wasn’t much discrimination; it’s just that African-Americans and woman increasingly wanted more professional careers post 1960.

Reduction in discrimination in preparing and entering a field: ie, there were barriers that prevented talented people from going to school and entering specific fields.

Reduction in discrimination once in the field; ie, there were a bunch of glass ceilings that prevented advancement.

The authors find that declining barriers to entry into a field explain 24 percent of growth in U.S. GDP per person between 1960 and 2010.

Declining labor market discrimination once in the field explains 6 percent of growth.

Changing  preferences across groups explain little of U.S. growth during this time period.

So it wasn’t that after 1960 a bunch of African-American and women suddenly wanted to become doctors.

Rather, things were bad because a lot of white men prevented African-American and women from becoming doctors.

All the usual caveats apply: it’s one paper on a topic that can probably never be fully understood through pure academic research.

But it’s a useful reminder that being less racist and sexist has both individual rights and economic benefits.

I think increasing educational opportunity, in this sense, is akin to reducing discrimination.

If educational opportunity is further increased in our country, we’re likely to see major gains on both moral and economic fronts.

Ohio’s urban charter schools are (finally) better and more cost effective than you think

Fordham just put out a good brief on charter schools in Ohio.

In case you haven’t been following the charter school story in Ohio, here’s some headlines to catch you up.


Some of these headlines were earned by terrible behavior of online charter schools. Some of these headlines were earned by the historical unevenness in the Ohio charter sector, which has faced large rounds of closures over the past few years.

But how are the schools doing today?

Most education researchers agree that growth is the most accurate measure of a school’s quality when it comes to test scores, and Ohio’s accountability system provides good growth data.

Comparison of Ohio’s Big 8 Districts: Charter vs. Traditional

Ohio’s Big Eight districts include: Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown. They serve a lot of Ohio’s lowest-income and minority students. In 2017–18, these eight districts enrolled 41 percent of of the state’s black and Hispanic students.

Here’s the charter (brick and mortar) vs. traditional school breakdown:

Screen Shot 2018-12-22 at 12.16.28 PM.png

28% of Ohio’s urban charters score and “A” or a “B” on the value-add system compared to 17% of traditional schools.

When you look at students instead of schools, the gap is even bigger: 31% vs. 16%. 

72% of traditional school score a “D” or an “F” on the value-add system compared to 59% of Ohio’s urban charters (numbers are about the same if you look at students).

Urban charter schools in Ohio are not amazing. But they are now better than Ohio’s urban traditional schools at increasing student learning (as measured by the state test).

Hopefully all of Ohio’s urban schools, charter and district alike, will get better overtime.

Ohio Charters Receive $3,000 Less Public Funds to Educate Public Students

A recent analysis on per-pupil spending found a 27% gap (about $3,000 less per student) between charter and traditional schools.

I would like to see a deeper breakdown of enrollment of students with severe special needs before making hard conclusions, but it appears Ohio’s urban charters are higher-performing and more productive.

The fact that charter school receive so much less money than traditional schools remains under-discussed in the media. Too many kids get less public resources simply because they attend a public charter school.

Also: Ohio’s Virtual Charters Score Very Very Poorly

Everyone of Ohio’s virtual charters scored an “F” on growth:

Screen Shot 2018-12-22 at 12.33.04 PM

This is not a pretty picture when it comes to academic performance.

I worry that that virtual charters have set back Ohio’s charter school sector a decade.

Lastly: Overall District Performance Across the Big Eight

Here’s the value-add score breakdown across the districts (combining charter and traditional schools):

Screen Shot 2018-12-22 at 12.28.05 PM

I was surprised by the amount of variation across the districts.

Toledo has 25% of its schools score an “A” or a “B” and 43% of its schools scoring an “F.”

Cincinnati only has 4% of its schools scoring an “A” or a “B” and 85% of its schools score an “F”.  

I’m not sure why Cincinnati is scoring so much worse. Given the relative amount of talent and resources in the city, I would have expected much better. Am I missing something?

The great charter closure wave of 2017 and the bad charter politics of 2019

I was recently reviewing historical charter school data and was stuck by the amount of closures in 2017.

Across just five states, authorizers closed 142 schools (TX, CA, AZ, FL, OH). In Ohio, nearly 10% of charter schools  were closed.

These closures impacted 2% of total charter schools nationwide.

In this same year, only 309 charter schools opened.

I think these trends will continue. The charter community is increasingly policing its own; parents are walking away from bad schools; and the worsening charter school politics means less political tolerance for the worst actors.

One potential irony of anti-charter activity is it will make overall charter school quality better.

The worst schools will be more likely to be closed. And new openings will be increasingly dominated by established operators with good track records who have the resources to grow in bad conditions.

To be clear: I don’t love the current tough politics around charters. I think it will slow down growth and innovation, which will reduce educational opportunity for kids who struck in really bad public schools.

But, relatively speaking, it will increase charter school quality.

I predict that in 2023, if CREDO replicates its 2013 national charter study, the charter effect will be higher (with statistical significance).


What is Amazon’s flywheel and why does Bezos so often ignore it?

I just finished reading The Everything Store by Brad Stone. It is an amazing book and I learned a ton. I highly recommend it.

But here is the question I kept coming back to: why does Bezos appear to so often get strategically distracted?

My presumption here is that I’m missing something and am wrong in thinking he gets distracted. He is the one running one of the most successful companies in the world.

But here’s my wondering:

Amazon seems most successful when it stays focused on building out world’s biggest online retail store and spinning out services that it had to create in order to scale (AWS, distribution, allowing 3rd party sellers on its platform).

This appears to be an amazing flywheel:

  • Capture the largest economies of scale retail has ever seen by being a global online everything store.
  • Anytime you create a technological or operational breakthrough, turn it into a platform available to third parties.
  • Repeat.

From afar, this seems like an amazing formula that Bezos has perfected with brilliant vision and aggressive execution.

So why doesn’t Bezos just stick to the formula?

Time and time again Bezos has deviated it from it and suffered major losses: including his spree of buying stakes in other companies, many of which eventually went bankrupt (investing distraction); the failure of Amazon Fire (hardware distraction); the failure of Amazon Wallet (veering into payments); the failure of Askville (search distraction). I’m sure there are more that I’m missing.

Note that in the above I’m not naming retail mistakes: experiments with online travel, fashion, auctions, and so forth were within in strategy and didn’t work out, but they weren’t really distractions. They were retail bets.

Kindle and Alexa are the most interesting counterpoints. With these devices, Amazon built hardware products that ended up being market leaders when the flywheel strategy dictates that they should have stayed out of the hardware game.

Amazon video another big bet that has not yet failed, but seems like it would have just been better for them to be the platform rather than be their own content channel.

Yet even if Kindle, Alexa, and Amazon video are long-term profitable, they (and all the distractions that failed) have to be weighed against the opportunity cost of time and resources that could have been plowed into the flywheel.

Amazon has so much retail growth ahead of them, why not just devote 100% of Amazon energy into being the everything store?


Is Sweden’s education system falling apart? If so, what is to blame: vouchers or progressivism?

Sweden adopted an expansive school voucher system in 1992.

Since then, Sweden’s PISA scores have tumbled.

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 9.58.39 AM.pngSweden’s PISA scores shot up a bit in 2015, which is good to see.

But it’s worth exploring why they dropped in the first place. There are two main theories why the scores dropped: some blame the voucher system and some blame Sweden’s embrace of progressive / constructivist educational methods (less teacher directed lecturing, more student inquiry and discovery, less focus on knowledge building).

Who’s to blame? Vouchers or constructivism?

Was it the Vouchers?

There’s been a decent amount of research on Sweden’s voucher program.

This paper found small positive to neutral effects on academic achievement and no effects on long-term outcomes. This paper found positive to neutral effects.

This paper found positive effects due to increased competition, though it took about ten years for these effects to kick-in. They also tackled the PISA issue head on:

Our positive estimates might appear surprising given Sweden’s relative decline in scores on international tests such as PISA since the mid 1990s… we do not find any support for the belief that an increase in the share of independent school students provides an explanation for Sweden’s relative decline.

It seems that vouchers aren’t the main culprit. They’ve only scaled to educating 20% of students, and most research finds neutral to positive effects.

Was it Constructivism?

Another set of researchers say that Sweden has embraced an extreme form of progressive / constructivism, “which holds that an objective reality does not exist and that the objects and phenomena themselves—and not just our perceptions and interpretations of these phenomena—are socially constructed.”

The authors note that this philosophy really began to take hold in the early 1990s, when large groups of older teachers retired and were replaced by younger teachers who had been trained in progressive-constructivist ideas.

This was accompanied by unwinding the existing detailed national curriculum, and, in 1994, replacing it with high level standards that were more constructivist in nature. These standards also had a deeper focus on student’s directing their own learning instead of teacher directed lessons.

Or was it both? 

These same authors said that move to constructivism was accelerated by the voucher program: because of fluffy curricular standards and a lack of accountability from the national government, the new private schools inflated grades, which drew students in, which then caused the public schools to respond by inflating their own grades.

Without national accountability, the researchers claim that it was race to the bottom.

Looking at Finland

Sweden is not the only country to drop on PISA of late. So has Finland, which previously was at the top of the PISA charts (and even after dropping still does very well).

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 1.33.24 PM.png

I’ve seen no rigorous research on why Finland dropped on PISA; some point to declining economic conditions, others to a reduced focus on core subjects like math. Others note that many of Sweden’s more constructivist / progressive reforms took place right when Sweden was at its peak, and now that they’ve been fully implemented scores have dropped.

No Excuses vs. Constructivist Charter Schools

In the United States, “No Excuses” charters schools, which tend to be more standards and teacher driven, generally outperform more constructivist / progressive school models when it comes to state tests.

I’d add this as another data point in favor of the idea that constructivist / progressive schools tend not to do as well on standardized tests.

My Hypothesis

I’m not an expert in any European education systems, so consider this a guess: I think that constructivist / progressive education models are the leading contender for why test scores are falling in Sweden and Finland.

This hypothesis fits within both anecdotal and research on progressive approaches not resulting in high test scores; see table below from meta analysis on effect teaching, which identified approaches that tend to raise / lower test scores:

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 7.39.23 AM.png

What Do Swedes Want? 

Given that Swedes embraced progressivism in both their traditional and voucher schools, perhaps they care less about PISA scores than they do other aspects of education.

It’s also interesting that Sweden’s PISA scores shot up a bit in 2015. So maybe the system is correcting toward balancing practices that produce good test scores and allow for student directed learning. Or perhaps the constructivist strategies do work and they just took some time to kick in. Either way, things don’t seem to be falling apart.

As vouches expand in Sweden, it will be interesting to watch what families desire as they have more information about which types of practices lead to which types of results.

Grasping in the Dark 

Unfortunately, both in Sweden and the United States, we have very little idea what types of education models lead to great long-term outcomes, so Swedish families (and the rest of us) will still be grasping in the dark for the foreseeable future.

City Fund updates

Check out this 74 Million interview with me and two other City Fund partners to get some updates on our work.

Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo and Kevin Shafer, who both joined our team over the summer, provide some great context on their past work in Indianapolis (Kameelah) and Camden (Kevin).

I really value how much earned wisdom our partners have. Kameelah and Kevin were incredible local leaders in their own communities, and it’s great that they can now support other leaders trying to make change.

In the interview, we also give updates on how much money we have raised and which cities we’ve made initial grants to.

We will continue to be fully transparent about where our money comes from and where it goes. We are a charitable institution with significant resources and we want our work to be understood and scrutinized.

We also want to be transparent because we’re big believers in this effort. We think that a few cities have made significant and sustained gains for children. And we’re excited to work on a philanthropic effort that helps see if these strategies can work in select group of other cities across the country.

If it works, a dozen or so cities will have shown that there might be a better way to do public education in cities. That will be amazing for children.

If it doesn’t work, we’ll understand that what worked in a few cities is simply not scalable.

The only way to find out is to do the work.

How much I gave to charity this year -> and to which cause -> and why my giving might be mistaken

Every year I write a post about how much I give to charity. I consider this an act of positive virtue signaling. If we’re going to compete on something, competing on how much we give to charity is the right kind of competition.

This year I’m slightly altering my reporting. Instead of reporting this year’s giving, I’m reporting a five year charitable giving percentage. I consider this a more honest reporting, as it smoothes out year to year fluctuations.

Over the past five years, I’ve given away 8.5% of my total five year pre-tax earnings.

How does this compare to your giving? I’d love to hear about how much you give and what you give to in the comments.

What I Give To: Expanding Bed Net Access to Reduce Malaria 

Most of my giving goes to the Against Malaria Foundation. They are recommended highly by Givewell.

I donate to AMF because there is good evidence that bed nets save lives and because my marginal contribution increases the number of people who have bed nets. Despite the massive success of bed nets, there is still an on-going need.

Researchers studied the decline of cases of malaria in Africa between 2000 and 2015. They found that the single most important contributor to the decline were insecticide-treated bed nets.

Bed nets were responsible for the aversion of 68% of the 663 million averted cases in Africa between 2000 and 2015. These are 451 million averted cases. Given that children make up 72% of malaria fatalities, this is a truly remarkable impact for families.

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 12.57.25 PM

Additionally, researchers estimate that the malaria “penalty” to GDP ranges from 0.41% of GDP in Ghana to 8.9% of GDP in Chad, all of which could be regained following elimination of malaria.

Not only does my gift potentially saves lives, it is also positively impacts economic productivity.

All together, Givewell estimates (very roughly), that every $4,000 spent on bed nets saves a life.

If this is true, and I keep up my giving, I will be able to save a lot of lives.

As a new father, I can barely comprehend what it would be like to lose our child. I hope my giving will over time help hundreds of families avoid the pain and suffering caused by one of life’s worst tragedies.

When I think about whether or not it’s worth it to give, I think about our daughter.

Two Reasons (Out of Many) I Might Be Wrong

It is hard to help other people. I’ve tried to minimize this risk by giving in an area with  lots of evidence, low operational complexity, and clear health benefits.

But the fact is bed nets are never going to get people out of extreme poverty.

The only way for people living in extreme poverty to get out of extreme poverty is through rapid economic growth. Bed nets will not cause rapid economic growth.

The problem is that I have no idea what will cause massive economic growth in Africa.

But here are somethings I have considered funding:

Economic Research: Lant Pritchett makes the case that economic research allows us to learn truths that help countries escape poverty; i.e., the research on the benefits of trade, property rights, and other liberal economic principles have led to many countries adopting these policies, which has led to massive increases in wealth. Perhaps the same could be said of the research on domestic industry subsidization that forces subsidized companies to export competitively (some say this is a key driver for the Asian tigers). I could fund this research in the United States, or work with others to set-up research programs in local universities. A few friends and I could probably cobble together enough money to fund a full-time professor at a prestigious African university to work on these issues.

Technological Innovation: Technological progress is a primary cause of wealth creation. People living in Africa have much longer lifespans today because of technological innovations invented elsewhere. While my giving alone probably isn’t enough to impact technological research or venture capital investing, I’ve wondered about trying to get a group of 50 people or so and invest alongside established funds that are dedicated to technological innovation in globally important areas, such as energy. It’s plausible that in the case of investing, I could even get my money back and do a lot of good.

How I Feel About Giving

For the most part, giving makes me feel good. It feels morally correct to reduce my consumption so I can save the lives of children living in poverty.

But it also stings a bit. If you put together all the various taxes I pay, my tax burden is somewhere between 40-50% (such is life in California!). When you add my charitable contributions to this, that’s nearly 60% of my income out the door.

I also sometimes worry about my family. I live a very comfortable life and don’t want for anything. But life is unpredictable and this could change. If I or a loved one were in a severe accident, it’s quite plausible that I could run through my savings in under a decade. Giving to charity now reduces my ability to withstand big shocks later. Ultimately, I view the ability to withstand big shocks as a privilege that shouldn’t trump my duty to help others now, but it’s still something I worry about.

So there it is.

I give away 8.5% of my pre-tax income and I allocate much of it to malaria reduction. I hope this helps others in need.



Rearranging how parents get information about schools may increase educational opportunity at no cost

A .2 standard deviation increase in academic performance is a pretty good sized effect.

In this study, the .2 effect equates to attending a school that is 5 percentile points higher in ranking in academic performance.

Most interventions that achieve a .2 effect cost money.

This intervention costs nothing.

Unified Enrollment Systems 

Over the past decade many cities have adopted unified enrollment systems. These systems allow families to go online and view information on all public schools in their city, and then submit their ranked preference of schools to the government. New Orleans, Indianapolis, Denver, Chicago, Newark, Camden, and New York all have some version of this system for at least some grades.

These systems are great in that they give parents more information, allow them to easily apply to schools online, and help policy makers get information on which schools are most in demand by parents.

I’ve previously written about how the user interfaces for these systems diverge greatly in in quality. Some feel like you’re using a great iphone app and some are barely better than opening PDF files.

How Does User Interface Affect School Selection?

In this study, researchers worked with a consumer testing company to recruit a group of parents to use a generic unified enrollment system to select a school.

They then broke the sample into groups and presented a different user interface to each group, with the aim of testing how presenting information would impact school selection.

Here’s what they found:

Screen Shot 2018-11-07 at 8.27.24 AM

You can see the biggest effect (.19 standard deviations) is in the row “default sort order” and the column “distance.”

The researchers created two default sort orders: in the first case, you put in your address and then you are shown the schools nearest to your address; in the second case, you are shown the highest performing schools available to you.

The researchers found that if you make academic performance the default sort order, parents ended up picking schools that were +5 percentile points higher ranked on academic performance.

Making academic performance the default order costs no money.


The study has some real limitations.

First, the stakes weren’t real. The parents weren’t actually selecting a school that they would send their child to. This probably meant they put less effort into the school selection. They also weren’t able to get information from other sources (like friends and family).

Second, having parents pick schools with higher academic performance ratings is only useful if those ratings accurately measure student learning. In cities that use value-added methods for school rankings, I’d feel more comfortable with this nudge. In cities that mostly use absolute test scores, I’d feel less comfortable.

Third, academic performance isn’t everything, and parents select schools for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, designers of the interface do have to make choices, so I’m ok with a bit of nudge toward academic performance, but I don’t think we should make this nudge at the expense of giving families a wholistic picture of schools.

All that being said, the study shows that small and easy to make changes in user interface may have an impact on how families select schools.

If I was a government official that managed a unified enrollment system, this study would lead me to experiment with similar interventions for my own city’s system.

At the very least, I’d want to make sure that my user interface decisions were deliberate and values based rather than ad-hoc and random.

Access and Supply

Lastly, great unified enrollment systems are about equalizing access to great public schools.

They do nothing to increase the number of great public schools.

Cities would also do well to do all they can to help their best public schools expand.