No One Knows if Charter School Districts Will Work

A couple of impetuses for this post:

1. This Politico Pro article: The New Orleans Model is Praised but Unproven.

2. An idea from Taleb’s Antifragile: it is much easier to predict what will vanish than it is to predict what will take it’s place.

3. Cowen’s First Law: “There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).”

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Here’s what I think we know:

1. The creation of a charter school district has led to significant academic growth in New Orleans, though absolute scores remain low.

2. New Orleans leaders have made plenty of mistakes along the way.

That’s really about it. And this is not to say that we know (1) with a 100% certainty. The New Orleans reform effort was not a controlled experiment. But nearly all of the data leads to this being a reasonable conclusion.

I would also venture this: not a lot has worked in achieving significant academic gains in urban school systems that serve at-risk students.

So the fact that New Orleans students have achieved such gains is very important.

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Here’s what I hope we will know ten years from now:

1. Other cities can also achieve academic growth by becoming charter school districts.

2. New Orleans can become an excellent school district because of becoming a charter school district.

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I often struggle to balance: being an advocate for an idea, attempting to implement an idea, and studying whether the idea is working.

In my work, I do all three very often, and it’s hard to do all three well at the same time.

When you’re advocating for an idea, it can be difficult to objectively study it, as your emotions get caught up in the communications effort.

When you’re implementing an idea, it can be difficult to (honestly) bullishly advocate for it, because you understand how hard the work is.

When you’re studying an idea, it can be difficult to advocate for it, because you understand how complicated the data is.

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In writing longer pieces I am often most successful at being disciplined: I am clear that the idea of charter school districts working is only a hypothesis, and that the goal of the next ten years of work should be to determine if this hypothesis is true.

On twitter, I’m probably the least disciplined, though I’m working on this.

One last note, most people who actually work in New Orleans are pretty honest and disciplined in saying that the gains are real but they’re not good enough; we’ve made a lot of mistakes; we’re still trying to get better.

I think this mentality will take the city far.

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