The problem with “risk / mitigation” sections in business plans

I see a lot of business plans and our team writes a lot of strategy memos.

I’ve always been a little frustrated with “risk / mitigation” sections of these documents, including some I’ve written myself.

“Risk / mitigation” sections feel like an exercise in confirmation bias. They almost always affirm the correctness of the business plan’s thesis.

The logic path of a risk / mitigation section is: “here’s our idea, there are some risks, but here’s why we’re going to do our idea anyway.

This is a modestly useful exercise. It’s worth understanding the risks of a plan and preparing for them. But this type of thinking does not force you to analyze the “crux” of your plan – i.e, what are the major trade-offs you’re making, and under what future conditions could you be proven wrong.

I prefer to see both of these lines of thinking in a business plan: first, a clear identification of the trade-offs in any major decision, and, second, a statement of what might make you change your mind about your plan’s thesis.

Any very hard decision will include difficult trade-offs. And any hard decision might also result in you being wrong. Identifying these ahead of time will help you be mentally prepared to make difficult shifts down the road.

It will also decrease the probability that you drink your own kool aid.  There is a humbling effect in writing down potential future conditions that will indicate that you are near failing or have already failed.

I hope that one day every business plan includes “trade-off” and “we will know we were wrong if” sections.

The New Orleans reforms have been both impactful and popular but the gains are plateauing

The New Orleans reform efforts are nearly thirteen years old.

As a reminder, the efforts led to some of the most significant achievement gains in our country’s recent history.

ednext_XV_4_harris_fig01-small

In a recent Sean Reardon study that appeared in the New York Times, New Orleans was the only city that scored in the top ten for growth in the country and serves a majority of African-American students.

All of the other top performing districts, except for Chicago, barely serve any African-American students, as the chart of the top ten growth districts below shows:

nola AA.png

College enrollment rates have also skyrocketed, though we don’t yet have great data on college completion and post-secondary outcomes.

college enrollment NOLA

However, most of the test score gains were made in the first 7 years of the reforms, and the city is no longer increasing relative to overall state performance.

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 8.57.20 AM

The gains in New Orleans are very real. But so is the current plateauing of test score performance. It remains an open question whether or not the system will see another significant increase in student performance. My guess is that the increases will eventually pick up again, but at more modest rates.

A particularly difficult strategy question is what philanthropy can do to help New Orleans at this juncture.

Leaders in the city are both trying to double down on expanding the best operators, as well as help all schools increase their instructional rigor.

Over the long-haul, I believe that most gains will come from scaling the best school operators, selectively starting new operators, and replacing the worst. But I do think that supports to help all schools can lead to some improvement, though my expectations with these types of reforms are modest. Many smart people disagree on how to allocate funds across these two types of strategies. It will be interesting to see what we learn from New Orleans over the next few years on this issue.

____

But what do the people think?

The Cowen Institute just came out with its annual polling data on New Orleans education. The poll draws from registered voters in New Orleans.

When it comes to voter perception of the system, votes are split between “the system is getting better” and “the system is staying the same.” Very few feel it’s getting worse.

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 9.03.53 AM

The perception mirrors the data: the system has improved, but these improvements are slowing down, and it’s unclear that things are getting much better now.

The public also continues to support charter schools and the city’s unified enrollment system.

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 9.06.49 AM

Only 17% of voters disagreed that charters had improved education, putting charter favorability at a 3:1 ratio.

Even more interesting: 70% of public school parents believed charter schools had improved education, compared to only 50% of those without children.

Charters seem to be winning those they serve but not fully winning those they don’t.

Open enrollment also only had 16% negative rate, putting it a 3:1 favorability rating.

___

Overall, the New Orleans reforms have been both impactful and popular.

Right after Katrina, neither of these outcomes were inevitable. In the early years of the reforms, school performance was very uneven and the reforms were very controversial.

It is incredibly difficult to transform a whole city’s educational system in a way that increases opportunities for children and garners the support of the public.

I am hopeful that other cities, such as Camden (see here for a good New York Times profile on the city’s efforts), will also do great things for kids and gain the public’s trust.

 

 

Some good music (nothing to do with education!)

I’m on vacation this week. This has involved a good amount of hiking, reading murder mysteries, reading nonfiction (Elephant in the Brain), good meals, and most importantly a lot of great time with my wife.

I haven’t posted about music in awhile, so see below for some music that I really like, and you might like too.

Angues and Julia Stone Chateau

Currently in the lead for my song personal song of the summer. Young love, wonderlust, and alternating male / female vocals – what more do you want for a summertime jam?

 

Loyal Light Up For You 

Wonderful summertime beats and a gentle refrain.

 

Arizona –  Cross My Mind

If you’re noticing a theme here you’re correct: I think I’ve somehow gotten into what the kids call “tropical house” or something like that. Who would have thought that at age 38  my tastes would take a turn toward low key, electric, pop music?

 

Valerie June – Astral Plane

Like the best of Dylan, Valerie June’s most amazing songs inspire complex emotions through seemingly “simple” music.

 

Tom Odell – Another Love

Great piano, great voice, and good melodrama. I’d also recommend this mix version. If you like that I’d also check out this version of Magnetized at BBC Radio1 show.

 

Mondo Cozmo – Thunder 

Sometimes songs just keep on walking up to the line of being too cheesy but then keep stepping back from the line in time to be saved – this is one of those songs.

 

Transviolet – Girls Your Age

Coming of age song of sorts – haunting voice and beat.

 

Alex the Astronaut Not Worth Hiding

Young Australian singer writes about coming out. I found it moving.

 

Mt. Joy – Silver Lining

This is the kind of music I loved in my mid-20s. Still have much love for it!

 

LP – Lost on You

A little rock and roll with alternating meanings of the song title woven throughout the song? Yes!

 

Ella Vos – White Noise

This version is good but might be slow for some, so check out the faster remix version too.

 

 

Doubling down when you’ve been wrong

From 2012 to 2016, three reforms took place in Memphis: the Gates Foundation teacher evaluation reform, the Achievement School District (ASD) charter school turnaround effort, and the district run izone turnaround effort.

In private conversations, I predicted that neither the teacher evaluation nor izone efforts would work. I thought the ASD charter effort work would work. The Arnold Foundation funded research to help us understand if our beliefs about how to help children were correct.

Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions: the teacher evaluation work did not improve achievement. The ASD charters have yet to deliver results. And the izone schools have done the best.

I was wrong about the izone and the ASD.

So what to do now?

The short answer: expand non-profit governance to protect the gains of izone schools, and continue to grow the best non-profit public charters and replace the worst.

The longer answer is below.

Responding to Being Wrong

There are three ways to respond to being wrong: ignore that you were wrong, change your behavior, or admit that you were wrong but double down.

Ignoring that you’re wrong is never good.

Changing your behavior is often the most reasonable response.

Doubling down comes with substantive and reputation risk, but it can be the right thing to do.

Memphis Results 

The teacher evaluation reforms went roughly as I expected, so I won’t discuss that too much here, other than saying that my predictions were based on the belief that execution would hamper implementation in big urban districts, which seems to be exactly what happened.

Here are the results of the izone and ASD charter efforts:

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The izone had a positive .2 stand deviation effect over five years. This is fairly good impact and it’s great to see these schools helping students.

The ASD schools had no impact.

What I Got Wrong

I made a few mistakes.

First, I underestimated the school district’s strategic and executional competency. In creating the izone, the district successfully recruited a lot of their best educators to their izone schools, and then appointed a talented leader, Sharon Griffith, to oversee these schools. This strategy (concentrating talent) and execution (selecting a great leader) worked in ways I did not expect.

Second, I overestimated the abilities of charter networks to deliver results in the first few years of the turnaround efforts. My assumption was that expert charter leaders would be able to deliver better results pretty quickly, even though they were going into very difficult situations and were often coming from out of town. Unfortunately, a few operators really struggled in the early years, with one of them, Yes College Prep, choosing to not even open up a school (this was a big hit as YES is considered to be one of the best networks in the country).

What I Would Have Done Differently 

I should have realized that great educators in the traditional system could achieve good results if given autonomy in a competitive environment. I have changed my beliefs on this issue based of the work of the izone, the work in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and my lived experience of seeing great teachers and leaders in all types of schools.

Rather than predict the izone wouldn’t work, I should have predicted that the izone might work, but advocated for non-profit governance over the zone so that it could sustain its gains. This remains my worry with the izone: that it will not be able to sustain its impacts over the next 5-10 years due to its governance structure, which makes it vulnerable to political shifts.

I also worry that it can’t really scale. Putting the best educators in the worst school is more of a one time intervention rather than a strategy that can grow over time, and it has some negative effects on the schools that lose their great educators.

Second, I should have realized that early stage charter operators (either newly started or new to Memphis) would struggle to scale through full school turnarounds in a difficult political environment. In hindsight, I should have advocated for more one grade at a time roll outs of newer operators. While this would have been more disruptive to families at the outset, it would have been better for kids over the long run.

What to Do Now

If the above diagnosis is true, it doesn’t really call for a dramatic change in strategy.

Rather, it calls for trying to get non-profit governance over the best district schools, growing the charters that are working, replacing those that aren’t, and starting new non-profit district and charter schools under more favorable conditions.

Getting non-profit governance to the best district educators would (I think) require a change in legislation.

Growing the best charter schools and closing the worst  can be done under current policy.

Evidence to Support Doubling Down

Researchers have found evidence of charter school sectors improving over time. This paper on charters in Texas found significant sector improvements, which led the researchers to write:

The findings suggest the value of taking a longer-term perspective when evaluating the impact of a major educational reform such as the introduction of charter schools, especially when the success of the reform ostensibly depends on parental decisions and market forces.

Additionally, previous research on Memphis charters found strong positive effects:

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 8.03.44 AM

These results mirror the results of many other urban charter sectors, which generally find positive effects.

So there is a research based case for predicting that the Memphis charters will improve over the next 5-10 years. We have already seen this with some operators, such as Aspire.

In Sum 

The research has increased my belief that great district school educators, with autonomy and support (and often pressure on local districts from the state to give this autonomy) can really help struggling students.

I still believe that these gains risk backsliding due to political shifts, so I support giving these schools non-profit governance so they can build enduring organizations (both Denver and Indianapolis have mechanisms to give district schools non-profit status).

I also still believe that growing the best charters and closing the worst is one of the best hopes for improving student achievement in Memphis.

So, in many ways, I’m choosing to double down despite being wrong, with the caveat of calling for non-profit governance for more types of public schools.

While this is uncomfortable, I don’t know a better way forward. I think doubling down will help children.

I understand that many of those who I disagree with say “we just need more time.” And I’m making a version of this argument here. So I’ve tried to lay out all my assumptions as clearly as possible, both for the sake of transparency, as well as with the hope that these assumptions can be corrected if they are wrong.

Two opinions in the San Francisco Chronicle

The SF Chronicle recently published two op-eds on education.

The first was written by three Bay Area school board members: Judy Appel, Roseann Torres and Madeline Kronenberg.

They called for an end to the charter school appeals process. Currently, charter schools that are rejected by school boards can appeal to the county (and the state). These board members want the right to reject charter schools, with no recourse for appeal.

Their opinion is that public charter schools are harming public education.

In their own words:

Charter schools do all of this — siphon public school funds, dodge transparency requirements, limit collective bargaining of educators, cherry-pick students and turn others away — with the claim of providing a superior public education. However, study after study shows that outcomes don’t differ between students who attend traditional public schools and charters. Instead, charters simply bleed public schools of precious resources, leaving educators and administrators to do more with less.

A second op-ed was written by members of three immigrant families: Rocio Arias, Gloria Aguilar, and Leticia Molina.

They want elected officials to stop blaming public charter schools for decades of poor results from public traditional schools. And they are frustrated that government officials often exercise school choice for their own kids (either through attending private schools or public schools that are zoned to wealthy neighborhoods), but attempt to block school choice for immigrant families.

In their own words:

We chose a charter public school because the traditional public schools in Oakland were not safe and had bad results, especially for Latino children like ours. Today the traditional schools are running out of paper, and the district is making harsh budget cuts after wasting millions in new money from the state. Voters have approved millions of dollars in bonds, but the district has made almost no progress building and fixing schools, and some schools have dangerous levels of lead in the water.

They end their op-ed with a call for political officials to stop attacking charter schools and to govern their districts in a way that supports all public schools, traditional and charter alike.

___

I understand the desires of the school members: as locally elected officials, they want the power to control public education in their city, so that they can best fulfill their duty to children. I get it.

I understand the desire of the immigrant families: as families with children in public schools, they want the power to find the best public schools for their children, so that they can best fulfill their duty to their own children. I get it.

While I get both arguments, I find the second op-ed to be more compelling than the first.

I don’t think local elected government officials should have the power to prevent immigrant families from partnering with educators to find the right fit for their children.

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:

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 5.36.44 PM.png

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.