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.
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?