The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth

edu wealth

Going from 16K to 18K in Annual Wages 

Last week, I did a post on Fryer and Debbie’s excellent new study on the Texas charter sector.

I emailed the authors about my hypothesis that the growth of high-quality charters – even if they aren’t that much better than average traditional schools – could still be of great value if these new charters displaced chronically failing schools.

Roland was kind enough to respond but pushed that even if my hypothesis is true, the story still might be a depressing one.

His point: the numbers from his study indicate that even if we replaced all these failing schools with high-performing charters, we’re still only talking about ~1-2K in extra earnings per year for these students.

Given that many of these students end up lower income brackets, this might mean going from 16K to 18K a year in annual salary. Hardly game changing in terms of life outcomes – and surely not a ticket to the middle class.

Confronting this Potential Reality

When a study tells you what you don’t want to hear, the first reaction is often to not deal with it (in some ways I did this in my previous post).

So everyone in education reform needs to deal with this potential reality: there is some possibility that the best that education reform has to offer can only, on average, move a student from 16K to 18K a year.

Of course, this is only one study of one state. We don’t yet know if these numbers will hold under different contexts, methodologies, or timeframes.

But, at the very least, your belief that a great school can radically increase wages should be a little lower after reading this study.

Other Considerations

I’m still mulling this over, but in conversations with Roland and folks I work with, certain ideas bubbled up:

The data doesn’t capture recent improvements: A lot of the best charters have only really started focusing on college and career over the past 5 years or so. As such, the students who received the full suite of redesigned high schools, counseling, and career support aren’t represented in this study. To the extent you believe the best charters are problem solving machines, you might believe this to be true.

The work is generational: Perhaps reformed schools can only, on average, push students who would have been in deep poverty to achieve average poverty / lower middle-class status. And perhaps their children, who will grow up in better educated environments, will the be ones  to more fully make it into the middle class. But this story could be unwound through raised expectations: if we told kids they were going to make it to the middle class, and they don’t, how will they react?

Colleges are the bottleneck: Perhaps these real gains in learning are being wasted by ineffective two year and four year colleges – and that without higher education reform we won’t be able to translate K-12 gains into wage increases.

Society is tough: Just because you’re better educated doesn’t mean you can overcome racism, lack of social capital, and an over-reliance on signaling.

More interventions are needed: Great schools can’t solve everything; interventions that work on family poverty, health, and parenting are needed for schools to really move kids as far as they need to be moved.

The schools aren’t really that good: A bunch of teaching to the test just jacks up crystallized knowledge but doesn’t really give kids the human capital qualities they need to succeed in the workforce.

What Do you Do in the Face of Ambiguity?

Leaders need to make hard decisions in the face of incomplete data.

Often times, this means relying on some combination of probabilistic thinking, intuition, ideology, and philosophy.

But, at some point, you need to walk away if the data is telling you what you’re doing is not working.

I don’t think one study is enough to walk away from the promise of urban charter schools, especially since they’ve achieved so much on less penultimate markers.  I think there’s a lot more experimentation and research that needs to be done to help us understand if we can translate academic gains into wage growth.

But it’s worth thinking about when you would walk away.

Because if there is no point at which you’d walk away, then what do you really stand for?

10 thoughts on “The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth

  1. ciro curbelo

    I haven’t read the study (I don’t really have time to). If the study talks about these things, I apologize in advance.

    1) Did “no excuses” graduates have significantly higher SAT and ACT test scores – either at the composite level or subject level? It is one thing to increase scores on a state test (with spotty rigor and gamesmanship on the part of state officials), but quite another to do it on a national test that means something to selective employers.

    2) (Similar to #1) Did “no excuses” graduates have more AP credits upon high school graduation?

    3) How many concurrent years were students enrolled in no excuses charters? I’d be surprised if Elementary, Middle, OR High School enrollment alone have material affects in income. Does the data show that those who are enrolled in Elementary, Middle, AND High School had higher earnings? Does that data show that “# of years enrolled” is predictive of future earnings?

    4) What were the years of the study? Did researchers control for the “great recession” – which was bad for many college students, not just those who grew up in poverty.

    5) Did “no excuses” graduates have different majors than others? STEM majors (especially those who study “E”) tend to earn higher salaries (and have higher employment rates). So, comparatively, did no excuses graduates graduate from STEM majors at greater, the same, or lesser rates?

    Questions #1 and #2 can help answer your “were the schools any good” question.

    Questions #3 and 4 are about research methodology (and the potential of drawing the wrong conclusions about high functioning charters).

    Question #5 gets to the career choices of the students and your “colleges being the bottleneck” question (many majors don’t give students marketable skills, and without wise peers or experienced adults to learn from, kids without college-educated parents can land in majors that don’t produce marketable skills).
    I apologize if the study already deals this this. If not, I hope this helps push the thinking. I’d suspect that all five questions can help explain the surprising findings. My hypothesis: The kids weren’t enrolled in no excuses charters for enough years to produce material gains in AP credit accumulation and ACT/SAT scores. They then chose majors of questionable worth, and graduated into a crappy labor market. If that is true, the researchers’ findings don’t really add or take away from the “are no excuses charters good for society” debate.

  2. Mike

    Great post. It’s an important study. How quickly can you catalyze similar studies of other geographies…like Boston?

  3. David Osborne

    I’m surprised you didn’t consider another hypothesis, this one supported by data: that in the years studied, Texas had a very weak charter sector. Until a few years ago, the Texas Education Agency closed very few failing charters. And for time they allowed almost every proposed charter to open. As a result, CREDO showed charters underperforming traditional public schools in Texas. It’s changing for the better, but it certainly explains why Fryar and Debbie might find disappointing outcomes in Texas.

    1. nkingsl

      Hey David – my guess was that the No Excuses charters performed well even if state wasn’t performing well as a whole (as study indicates)… so it was the No Excuses data that surprised me the most

  4. Brian

    Though dissapointing, I am not putting a ton of weight on this initial study b/c of timing. Admittedly, I didn’t dig much into the study details, but the most recent data they could have possibly had for earnings was 2015. So If they earned a four year college degree, the latest they could have earned it was 2014. So they graduated high school in 2010. So they started kindergarten in ~1997. How many kids in Texas were in a high quality charter since 1997?! YES Prep started in 1998. We need to see earnings outcomes after cumulative impact of high-quality charter schools, especially in light of the work you have cited occurring in the charter sector in the past five years to continue to push the definition of success to be broader and higher.

  5. Cozzi, John

    This has been a very helpful piece. Here are my two cents, which probably is nothing new:

    – Many schools have done the impossible and raised education outcomes through K-12. We organized around that and are on a broader path to success. – While we talk about college being the goal, it’s still elusive in that (1) most kids don’t have many college grads in their primary universe and (2) we don’t control the college experience, so anything could happen. – My observation is that most families not in poverty talk about college as a de facto means to an end, not an end. They observe and talk about a range of jobs that require college and bring with it different role models, as well as a variety of economic, effort and status trade offs. That is a much different thing to visualize. – At KIPP NJ we are only just beginning to get to the next level of helping our kids in KTC. It involves both preparing them differently, engaging with the, while in college differently, and setting up a path to launch. I’m sure we will play with it for years to get it right, just as in academics. But only now are we organizing around it to achieve differential outcomes as in K-12 education. – So the results don’t surprise me because of my comments. Poverty is brutal in so many insidious ways we keep getting surprised at where its handicapped someone. The good news is I think this part is much easier that the insane academic accomplishments our teachers have made. We will just organize around solving it.

    Thanks for pushing on this topic. We originally thought a great middle school would make all of the difference. Now we realize breaking poverty requires more, but we can attack that too.

    Regards, John

    John F. Cozzi AEA Investors LP 666 Fifth Avenue, 36th Floor New York, New York 10103 (T) 212-702-0504 (M) 908-347-1427

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