Response to Matt Ladner and Jay Greene

Over at Jay’s blog, Jay and Matt wrote two critical posts of portfolio management and harbormasters (our team calls them quarterbacks).

Jay and Matt think differently than I do, have different political orientations, and are sharp. Their writing makes me smarter.

I also find their post titles, writing tone, and evidence analysis to be a bit over the top. They sometimes overstate their claims and under appreciate the other side of the argument.

In these two posts, Jay and Matt use NAEP charter sector gains in Arizona, Michigan, and Texas – as well as the mediocre NAEP scores seen in Louisiana’s charter sector – to argue that portfolio management and quarterbacks aren’t working.

I found their analysis to be overly narrow. Instead of taking some new evidence in and synthesizing this with the broad set of evidence available, they anchored on to one set of data points and made too strong of claims (especially in the titles of their posts).

Don’t Look at NAEP in Isolation 

Matt is right to point out that some states with fairly loose charter regulations saw a lot of charter gains in NAEP between 2009 and 2017.

I think this should modestly increase our belief that being loose on charter openings and closings can lead, over time, to a healthy charter sector.

But the story is not that clean.

This CREDO paper, which looked at charter school performance in Texas between 2011 and 2015, found a small positive effect in reading and no effect in math. Given that CREDO tracks individual students across time, and NAEP does not, the CREDO data should make us cautious in interpreting the NAEP gains as a huge victory.

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Another study found that it took Texas charters ten years to achieve the performance gains of their traditional school peers.

While it’s great to see the sector improving in Texas, perhaps with better regulation the sector wouldn’t have had to improve for ten years just to achieve neutral effects.

The story of the Texas charter sector is much more complicated than Matt’s piece indicated. The same is true for Arizona and Florida, where quasi-experimental research has found muted test score effects.

Given the different results of NAEP and CREDO, we should be trying to figure out the puzzle rather than claiming victory, as Matt tends to do.

Don’t Look at States in Isolation 

Looking at state level gains is not a great measure of whether portfolio and quarterbacks are working, as portfolio (to some extent) and quarterbacks (almost always) are city based endeavors.

For city based data, this CREDO study measured student learning effects in a bunch of cities across the country.

Washington D.C., Denver, New Orleans, and Newark all did very well. These cities are also some of the most mature portfolio cities.

Phoenix, Austin, El Paso, Forth Worth, Mesa, and San Antonio did not do well. These cities are all found in loose regulation states.

It hardly seems like a slam dunk to me that portfolio / quarterbacks are bad and loose regulation is good.

Of course, the CREDO analysis is not perfect: test scores aren’t everything and the virtual twin methodology may miss unobserved differences between students.

But looking at state based NAEP scores to make broad judgements on portfolio and quarterbacks is unwise, especially with so much other evidence available.

The portfolio / quarterback model seems to be doing some good in many cities.

Quarterbacks are a Step in the Right Direction  

Jay and Matt often criticize quarterbacks as vehicles for people who think they are smarter than everyone else (especially educators and families). I find this to be an overly simple critique.

Quarterback originated as a way to use expertise to aggregate and allocate philanthropy.

In many cities, philanthropists were funding low impact activities, often wasting it on the  pet projects of district leadership. A lot of money was spent for very little academic gain.

Quarterbacks have helped improve philanthropy: instead of just passively giving money to the district, philanthropists partner with expert management teams to try and launch and grow great non-profits.

I think this is a major improvement on the status quo. Of course, there are some drawbacks, and too much centralization of philanthropic capital poses risks. This is why I don’t think all of a city’s philanthropic capital should flow through one organization.

But quarterbacks are increasing, not decreasing, educator entrepreneurship and family choice. Yes, they do often use test score results selecting who to fund, but I suspect this will change if a better way to invest is developed over time.

In Sum

The NAEP data should not be ignored. It’s made me more open to the idea that looser regulations can lead to charter scale and quality, especially at the state level. And I found Matt’s data analysis to be quite helpful. I love it when smart people who think differently than me play with complex data sets and come to novel conclusions.

But I think there’s plenty of other state based evidence that should make us cautious, such as the CREDO Texas study.

I also think there’s a lot of evidence that the charter sectors in portfolio / quarterback cities are making a lot of gains. The NAEP data Matt and Jay site, which is state based and does not track individual students, is not convincing enough to make me deeply question our city based work.

All that being said, I look forward to reading more from Jay and Matt in the future.

I don’t take smart, critical friends for granted.

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