Ignoring educational productivity is immoral

I. The Morality of Productivity 

What if we knew a way to increase educational opportunity at no additional cost?

The benefits would be enormous. We could give more children the education they deserve.

And, by not having to increase educational spending, we could spend these saved tax dollars on families in need, or paying off government debt, or keeping money in the hands of working families.

Increasing educational productivity is one of the great moral issues of our time.

Unfortunately, increasing educational productivity in our country has been enormously difficult to accomplish.

II. Inequity in the City

Researchers at the University of Arkansas just published Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City.

The report finds that across 14 cities, public charter schools receive an average of $5,721 less per-pupil than traditional public schools, which equates to a 29% funding gap.

The data table below provides more detail.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 3.02.01 PM

The authors do note that charters serve less special education students than traditional schools.

When controlled for special education, the results change a bit. Calculating the true costs of special education is notoriously difficult to estimate, so I view these figures as likely directionally correct but not 100% precise.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 3.04.58 PMOnce special education is accounted for, two regions, Shelby Country and Houston spend more on charters than traditional schools (this is in part because philanthropy picks up some of the charter school tab).

But 10 other cities still have a +$500 or greater funding gap per student.

Glancing at these cities, it looks like the special education differential accounts for about 20-25% of the spending discrepancy.

So that original 29% funding gap is a bit high.

Let’s be generous to the traditional system and say the the true gap is closer to 20%.

III. Charter School Performance in the City

To gauge charter school performance in these cities, I looked at CREDO’s urban charter school study.

See below for a table that I crated that adds in the CREDO math and ELA effects in the last two columns.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 3.31.38 PM

What do you notice?

In every city except for San Antonio, charters outperform the traditional system.

Sometimes it’s by small amounts (Atlanta), and sometimes it’s by large amounts (Boston), but in nearly every case charters outperform their traditional peers.

And while the above analysis only looks at ten or so cities, the results mirror other national studies that consistently find urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools while spending around 20% less per-pupil.

IV. What Could You do With a the Gains from Productivity?

Research indicates that charter schools can probably get better, or at least equal, results in low-income areas for 20% less cost. In New Orleans, these achievement gains held steady even when the charter sector grew to serve 95% of the students in the city, which provides some hope that these findings will stick at scale.

In a field where productivity gains are hard to come by, urban charter schools are a source of very significant productivity gains.

What, as a society, could we do with this 20% extra funding that urban charter schools could save us?

Well, we spend about $10,000 per student on public education in this country.

With a 20% savings, we could turn around and give a basic income grant of $4,000 to every family with two children.

Alternatively, we could spend money on additional social services.

Or we could put more money in the hands of taxpayers, which could help grow the economy and provide more jobs.

Any of these options, especially cash grants back to poor families, could do a lot for those in need.

This is why ignoring educational productivity is immoral.

It may not feel good to consider the educational system through a productivity lens, but to fail to do so is to hurt those who are most in need of our support.

6 thoughts on “Ignoring educational productivity is immoral

  1. Freddie deBoer

    You’re making the most basic failed assumptions possible in this post. At scale, charters are not significantly different from public schools. Charters that show these gains are idiosyncratic examples that receive the benefit of unusual structural advantages and advantages of massive effort, attention, and time from deep-pocketed entities. So you get examples like New Orleans, where an army of do-gooders descended and the entire civic infrastructure was remade top-to-bottom and suggest that can be meaningfully scaled, which is absurd. Or Success Academy, where teachers churn in and out of the system at something like twice the (already sky-high) attrition rate for teachers, and can be replaced by a never-ending stream of people with Ivy League degrees looking for their first NYC jobs who are willing to work under intensely unhappy working conditions for relatively low pay, and then after a few years move on to more remunerative jobs. Try that in the Ozark mountains or the Mississippi Delta and see if you can attract that kind of talent. These systems also tend to be filled with hidden selection bias, as was found by Reuters in a huge investigation of the many ways charters cook the books to only admit the students most likely to succeed. Meanwhile in places like Detroit, Nashville, Newark, and Washington DC choice programs have failed completely. Which do you think will be more likely to be scaled by hundreds of thousands of schools and millions of teachers?

    “Charter” simply is not a condition that can be scaled; it’s not really a consistent condition at all. The fact that you wave your hand and blithely assume that what worked in the totally idiosyncratic case of New Orleans – presuming there’s no fraud going on and that the test score advantages won’t degrade over time, and that we see actual differences in college-level persistence and success, a big question – shows that you’re not a serious broker. You’re an ideologue.

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    1. nkingsl Post author

      Thanks, Freddie. I agree with a few of your concerns but not others. Would it be ok for me publish your comment on this blog and my embedded responses to it?

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  2. Chris C.

    A few points that complement some of Freddie’s, especially in terms of the core selection problem:

    1. Charters still have a huge advantage over other public schools in that simply getting in the door requires some action on the part of the parent or guardian–signing up for the lottery, etc. You don’t have that bare minimum for public schools, so the publics are likely to end up with the students with the least parental guidance. Even among disadvantaged students (if you’re using things like free lunch eligibility), there’s a huge amount of variance in terms of parental support–and it’s likely that parents who seek out charters are the more involved ones. Yes, a good bit of the quasi-experimental evidence on those who put in for lotteries has shown some positive impact of those who get in to charters, but I suspect part of that is because the students who lose the charter lotteries are far more likely to end up at schools with peers whose parents didn’t enter the lottery in the first place. The impact of peer effects don’t seem to be controlled for as well in these studies (because it’s quite difficult to do!), but it’s quite important and likely a major cause of the differences (see #4 below). Think about it–if you have a charter school classroom of 30 students who all put in to a lottery (and won) compared to a public school classroom of 30 students, only half of whom put into the lottery (and lost), it’s much more likely that the public school classroom has more behavioral problems and weaker students (though I’d love to see more detailed data on these potential peer effects, I recall at least a few studies that showed the major impact of such behavioral problem students on learning outcomes).
    2. Depending on the area, many charters don’t provide services like busing to students (this was a big issue recently in Little Rock). That results in lower costs and for the charters AND tends to drive away poorer students whose parents can’t afford a car or have to work during the school drop-off/pick-up times.
    3. Charters can often build off public schools and districts for educational support activities, curriculum, and extracurriculars. If charters had to shoulder the entire burden for these support elements, I suspect you’d see higher levels of spending by them as well.
    4. The discipline issue is an enormous one as well–if a student gets expelled from a charter in most cities, where will they go? If a student or parent doesn’t want to agree to a no-excuses contract to follow the school rules, where will they go? To the public schools, of course, where the spillover effects from just a few behavioral problem students can be enormously negative on test scores (and have other cascading effects like driving away talented teachers who don’t get adequate admin support).

    There are plenty of issues with public schools and areas where charter schools are much better (changing the salary scale to actually reflect teaching competence, not requiring useless and expensive certifications from diploma mill-level education schools, innovating in a number of curricular and structural ways, etc.). But in terms of bang-for-your-buck funding, I doubt you’ll get much of a different outcome with an all-charter system compared to a public system (especially a public system with a good range of choices). And the process of transitioning over could be extremely expensive in the short-term, particularly if there’s not adequate vetting of new charters.

    Enjoyed reading the post though and the follow-up!

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  3. Pingback: Education philanthropists should not take advice from Larry Summers | relinquishment

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