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.

Wisdom of others: best books I read in 2016

Note that these are books I read in 2016, not necessarily those that were published in 2016.

Wealth of Humans – Ryan Avent

A great overview of the major trends that will affect employment, wages, and politics over the coming decades. This book significantly increased my belief that wage subsidies may be a key policy for increasing individual meaning and societal stability as we transition to the digital age. I reviewed the book here.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age – James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg

This books wins the award for “highest authorial confidence in opinions I disagree with” – yet it made me think a lot, and I value books for the thoughts they generate just as much as the claims that are made.

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth – Robin Hanson

A fascinating book of predictions based on the idea of (1) applying social science literature to (2) hard science trends to (3) try to predict the future. I reviewed the book here.

Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World -Leif Wenar

Wenar’s argument – that we should not buy oil and minerals from states where the people have not given their assent for the sale – seems morally correct and politically impossible, for now. But the seeds of change often begin with clear arguments. Hopefully Wenar will have influence over the coming decades.

The Scapegoat – Rene Girard

Girard, a Christian, makes the argument that profoundness of Jesus’ death stems from the fact that it marks a historical shift in empathy: instead of siding with the mob that kills the outsider, with Jesus we side with the outsider.

I found this to be a compelling and beautiful argument. It also supports my belief that the origins of Christianity and Buddhism are intertwined with the transition from hunter and gather to agricultural societies. In a hunter and gather society, the group is everything. In agricultural societies, high degrees of inequality create more within group class based conflict, which opens up space for spiritual traditions based on poverty / outsiders / individual suffering / etc.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

I’d never read it before. I’m only 25% finished as it’s so brutal to read. But it adds important context to the tales we’ve been told.

The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest PresidentsBruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith

A good company on to Zinn. I didn’t agree with everything in this book but I like the framework: analyzing presidential war time decisions based on personal desires and psychology rather than simply national interest. I found the arguments about the Revolutionary War to be most compelling (war fueled in part by desire for territorial expansion and land owner wealth accumulation). Also right notes that we give too much status to war time presidents and not enough status to economic growth / peace presidents.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads – Tim Wu

Wu makes a strong argument that “fake news” is a structural problem with deep historical roots: so long as advertisements drive revenues for media, we’ll always have problems with the consequences of fighting for eyeballs.

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics – Judis

Most interesting takeaway: leftist populist movements tend to involve two groups (the people vs. the elite) while right wing populist movements tend to involve three groups (the people vs. the elite + an out group).

The Last Days of Night: A Novel – Graham Moore

A great historical fiction novel about the corporate wars to win the race of making money off the electrification of America.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance

Made me think deeper about the historical perseverance of culture.

The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World – Ruchir Sharma

Re-enforced the power of creating frameworks that combine the right metrics with psycho / social / cultural analysis. You need both to do diligence on countries or companies or people.

Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond – Chris Cowley and Henry Lodge

Ignore the occasional off-putting sexism and you’ll get great advice (I think). I have 100% adopted the physical routine but am still struggling with the dietary routine.

Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies – Charles Koch

Whatever you think of Koch politics, this is an insightful read on how a founder’s philosophy, psychology, and personal values infuse a company, for better or for worse.

Miracle Man – William Leibowitz

A fun read!

 

Future rivalries: the platform vs. the chief academic officer

I’ve previously written on the rivalry between chief academic officers (who manage instruction) and chief schools officers (who manage the portfolio of schools).

In traditional districts, I deeply believe that the chief academic officer should report to the chief schools officer, who should report to the superintendent.

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In the future, I think the chief academic risks losing another battle: this time with instructional platforms.

In his book the End of Average, Tyler Cowen makes the argument that those professional who form symbiotic relationships with technology will thrive. He cites the example of hybrid human-computer chess teams.

It is likely that the same will be true in education.

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My hunch is that in the future most schools and districts will be on educational platforms that combine human curation of content and algorithms to develop an instructional program from afar.

In this sense, many school operators will outsource many of the traditional roles of a chief academic officer to a platform.

Once these platforms get good enough – chief academic officers who claim “I know our children better” and demand full control of the academic program – will lose. The platform will be better.

The platform , on average, will be better than a chief academic officer.

But this does not mean that a platform, on average, will be better than a platform + a smart / humble / hardworking chief academic officer.

As with chess, the hybrid may very well win.

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How might a chief academic officer add value in this new role?

She could:

  1. Monitor relationships and place students and teachers into groups in a manner that would be difficult for a platform to intuit.
  2. Utilize local community resources to augment instruction.
  3. Provide intensive academic support to students who are not progressing as expected.
  4. Provide non-academic interventions to struggling students.
  5. Run experiments to test whether new platforms might be better to adopt.

In other words, the chief academic officer might morph into a chief learning officer that focuses on psychology, relationships, anomolies, and technology acquisition.

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Timing is one of the hardest part about incorporating technology into daily operations.

Move too fast and you have a mess.

Move too slow and you’ve harmed those you’re serving.

Over the past year, I’ve tried to spend time learning about the major platforms out there.

It feels like it’s getting close.

Not yet sure who is Friendster and who is Facebook.

The race is on, as they say.

Why don’t we have a 10x better school?

10x

There’s a Silicon Valley mantra that your need new product needs to be 10x better than the incumbent in order for you to displace them and have a shot at a market monopoly.

Uber, for example, is a 10x product. It vastly better than taxis on so many dimensions (price, easy of use, consistency, service, etc.).

In education, it’s unclear to me that we’ve built a schools that are 10x better than the median traditional district school.

We have built schools that are 10x better than failing urban schools, and it’s no surprise that this is where the entrepreneurial sector has seen so much success.

Why haven’t we built a bunch of schools that are 10x better than an average school?

I’m not sure, but some reflections below.

1. Educators are trying to be 10x at the wrong thing 

Great tech companies usually initially succeed because their technology – not their operations – is 10x better than their competitors.

Often times, technology can be built by smallish group of highly talented people and then scaled at little marginal effort or cost.

So far, school operators have not been able to replicate this model of technological advancement and scale. This way of thinking is not in their DNA. They are still trying to squeeze 10x improvements out of areas such as program design, human resources, and operations.

It will be interesting to see if Summit, Alt School, Khan Academy and others can utilize a 100x tech backbone to scale an instructional program that, over time, evolves into a 10x better school.

2. There’s no profit motive

Perhaps. With companies like Bridge Academies, we are seeing interesting attempts at 10x breakthroughs in the for-profit international market.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of for-profit K12 and university operators in this country, and they aren’t launching 10x better schools that are displacing government and non-profit operators.

3. The education sector is over-regulated

Perhaps regulation is stifling innovation.

I’m sure that this is at least partially true, but the most in demand private schools are not very innovative. Rather, they tend to be highly selective, academically rigorous, extracurricular rich, and culturally strong.

And they also cost $30,000 a year.

So, to date, the private side of things is not exactly delivering a bunch of breakthrough innovations.

Maybe an expansion of education savings accounts will unleash some 10x products, but it’s hard to say this with great confidence.

4. The industry culture is risk averse 

Education may be attracting and retaining professionals who are generally not willing to take the risks needed to achieve 10x products.

In some sense, given that children are involved, this culture is to some extent warranted.

But maybe it needs to be loosened up a bit.

5. This is (mostly) as good as it gets

Not everything can be made better. The fork I ate my dinner with today is not that much better than a fork from the 1970s.

Perhaps this is about as good as schooling gets.

My guess? 

I don’t yet have opinions that are strong enough to warrant action beyond the work I’m already doing.

But I want to keep thinking about this.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.