Author Archives: nkingsl

What if unified enrollment platforms were 10x better?

An emerging group of cities – including Washington D.C., Newark, Camden, New Orleans, and Denver – have adopted unified enrollment systems. With these systems, families can enroll in schools across the city via an online application system.

This is a huge step forward. For too long, parents have not had enough information or access to the public schools in their cities.

However, the new enrollment systems are still in their infancy. The best version of these systems could radically improve public education. Unfortunately, we’re very far from this endgame.

I. Early Wins: Access, Equity, and Ranking

Access: With the best open enrollment systems, families who can’t afford a house in a fancy neighborhood can now finally transparently apply to a school in a more wealthy neighborhood.

As a result of increase in access, a recent study in Washington D.C. found that the new enrollment regime would likely reduce segregation over time:

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Equity: In most cities, traditional and charter schools play a ton of games with enrollment. Traditional magnet schools use opaque entry requirements. Bad apple charters don’t take in kids with special needs. There is no equity.

With online enrollment platforms, these problems go away, as schools are no longer in control of their enrollment.

Quite simply: the algorithm is fairer than the enrollment clerk.

Ranking: These new enrollment systems also allow parents to rank their top schools. This is extremely important.

First, a family’s high desire to enroll their child in a school can now  be translated into an increased chance that they actually get into this school.

Previously, high desire meant little unless you were connected, wealthy, or dogged.

Second, ranking allows  parents to publicly signal to government which schools are most and least in demand (which will ideally affect opening, expansion, and closure decisions). It also signals to school operators what attributes make a school in high demand.

By analyzing ranking preferences, researchers in New Orleans were able to correlate school characteristics with parent preference:

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 9.44.39 AMRanking transforms family desire into actionable information.

II. Unified Enrollment Systems are Mediocre Platforms

In preparation for writing this blog, I spend an hour on unified enrollment system websites. It was not a great experience.

Here is the school finder homepage from Washington D.C. – I couldn’t even find a way to filter schools by academic performance!

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Here is the search function for Newark’s enrollment system – you have to download a pdf!

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By comparison, here’s the search page from Zillow:

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On Zillow, you can easily search for homes based on the most useful search criteria. Yes, Zillow is surely better capitalized than your average enrollment system, but even with modest funds a city should be able to do better than a downloadable pdf.

III. Moving From Equity and Ranking to Matching and Prediction

More sophisticated uniform enrollment could offer two extraordinary improvements: they could better match families with schools, and they could better predict how any given student would do at a school.

Matching: Right now families mostly use enrollment systems for ranking: they know the schools they want and they use enrollment systems to express this desire.

What is not really happening (as far as I can tell) is sophisticated algorithms actually helping families match with schools.

For example, on Camden’s enrollment site (where you can thankfully filter by academic performance!), I found three schools that all met the “on track” performance criteria, and pulled up the comparison page:

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 10.11.14 AM

This does very little to help me choose between these schools. My preference variables are limited to very broad categories such as “art classes” and “after school programs.”

After playing around on these websites, I get very little indication that that the platform knows me or the schools very well. Compare this to Netflix, Amazon, or dating websites (previous life) – platforms where I feel like the algorithms know me better than myself.

Unified enrollment systems need to more deeply understand children and schools in order to make better matches.

Prediction: Right now, government accountability systems are a basket case of poor design (generally don’t weight growth enough), brutal politics (what politician wants to tell a bunch of communities they only have “F” schools?), and awful transparency (good luck trying to navigate your average state department of education website).

Most importantly, government accountability systems evaluate schools rather than make predictions.

As a parent, it’s one thing to tell you that a school is a “C+” – it’s another thing to give you a prediction of what will happen to your child if she attends the school.

With current date, we could probably gather basic information on your child’s age, gender, current academic performance, personality type, etc.,  and make a reasonably accurate prediction that if she attends school X she will have a Y% chance of graduating from high schools and a Z% chance of earning a post-secondary degree.

Good enrollment systems, over time, should become better and better predictive agents, and, perhaps, can end up augmenting (displacing?) government accountability systems.

IV. Root Causes and Potential Solutions 

I don’t yet have strong beliefs about the root causes of why these enrollment products aren’t getting better faster. But here’s some guesses:

Non-profits > government operated: Most of the enrollment systems are run by governments, which are not good at running tech products and have bad incentives around giving parents accurate information about schools. Non-profits would likely be better operationally and have better incentives, and avoid the privacy concerns associated with for-profits.

Lack of scale: Matching and predication can better with bigger data sets, and if all these systems are structured as isolated city based data silos, the algorithms will be dumber than they should be.

Weak Customer Demand -> Bad Economics: SchoolMint, from what I understand, is the most successful player in the market. For reasons I don’t underhand, this company has not developed a better product. Perhaps it’s because their government customers don’t actually want it. Or perhaps the economics don’t work (which might suggest philanthropy is needed).

If the above is true, a national non-profit should be backed to scale to enough size to create smart algorithms, and it should be financially structured in a manner that gets it out of the perverse incentives of being beholden to government or individual schools rather than families.

A philanthropic foundation with a great tech backbone could be well situated to support this endeavor.

V. Expectations

Better matching and prediction would probably not make the average student’s education experience 10x better, just as dating websites don’t inevitably lead to great marriages.

But I do think better matching and predication could increase the probabilities that millions of families could find a better fit for their children.

At scale, that’s a better world.

What will be the stable charter school and teacher union equilibrium?

It appears Kentucky may pass a charter school law.

News recently broke that Noble charter schools may become unionized.

Where is this all heading?

The Forces at Work: Charter Market Share will Continue to Rise 

Charter market share will continue to rise because (a) 40+ states allow charters and this number is increasing and (b) once a charter school is open it is difficult to close.

Yes, policies like charter school caps and moratoriums may slow charter growth down, but it will be incredibly difficult for union leaders to fully stop charters from growing in a world where charters are legal in 90% of states. Rolling back laws in this many states is unlikely.

Charter market share will continue to grow.

The Forces at Work: Unions Organize Where the Teachers Are 

A simple consequence of rising charter market share is a rise in the number of teachers who work at charter schools.

Unions received dues (and power) from having as many teachers as possible enrolled as members.

The more charter schools there are, the more it will be be worthwhile for unions to attempt to organize these teachers, for both financial and political purposes.

The Future of Union Incentives 

So we’re basically going to be in multi-round unionization game between unions and charter schools.

Most importantly, this new game (unionizing a lot of charters) will have very different incentives than the old game (unionizing a local monopoly).

Under the old game, the unions paid a relatively small price for being obstructionist: with only one school operator in town (the district), they didn’t have to worry too much about how their actions affected the performance or reputation of that school operator.

In the new game, the union has a new incentive structure: if they are overly obstructionist, they will reduce their ability  to unionize more charters in the future; however, if they are not obstructionist enough, unionizing a charter won’t slow down the growth of that operator (which is in the unions interest, as they want the district to last as long as possible, as it’s the easiest entity to unionize).

The unions thus want to add value to unionized teachers and at the same time hobble charter school growth.

The ideal play for unions is to: (a) unionize charter schools  (b) demonstrate value to their unionized charter teachers so they can unionize future schools (c) slow down the enrollment growth of unionized charter schools  (d) avoid having unionized charter schools go down in flames so they can unionize future schools.

My Guess

The conditions for charter school unionization are favorable compared to other sectors of the economy: you have a long history of unionization, strong and well-financed existing unions, an inability to outsource to other states or countries, and weak accountability for performance (compared to the financial market).

All of this bodes well for unionization.

But unionizing charters will require unions to moderate their behavior and become less antagonist with management, as they will be working in a market of providers rather than a district monopoly. This will require significant change in their leadership and culture. This is hard to do.

So where are we heading?

One interesting comparison group is nurses, which generally operate in a non-profit, physically anchored, and heavily regulated environment.

Overall, about 20% of nurses belong to a union.

And while most industries have seen declining union membership, nursing union membership has risen over the past 15 years.

nurse-union-fever

I think we will see the same thing happen in the charter sector.

That being said, given that unions have to independently organize each charter organization (which is very expensive), and that their success will be predicated on cultural change, I don’t think we’ll quickly move into a world of 100% charter unionization.

But will we see 20% of charter school teachers (compared to ~7% right now) organized in unions over the next decade or so?

I think so.

Book Review: Homo Deus

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Homo Dues is Yuval Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, which was excellent.

I. Book Summary 

The Past 

For most of time, humans struggled to overcome three evils: famines, plagues, and wars.

In part because humans really had no good answers to these problems, God became the center piece of coping with this evils. It was God’s will, rather than human agency, that was the causal foundation for what happened on Earth.

The Turning Point 

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution changed all this – rationality and science allowed humans to begin taming famines, plagues, and war – which also eroded God’s standing.

The Present 

Together, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – as well as the decline of religion – led to a very turbulent 20th century, where numerous countries and societies experimented with new social structures.

Ultimately, capitalistic welfare states won out on the economic front, and Humanism (seeking meaning by looking inward rather than by following God’s will) is winning out on the social / spiritual front.

Because we’ve made so much progress defeating famine, plagues, and war – we’re now turning our attention to achieve immortality, happiness, and, ultimately, god like abilities.

The Future

Humanistic capitalism will be threatened by the rise of robots / computers that will undermine the foundations of both humanism and capitalism.

Because machines will be become more advanced than us, it won’t make sense for human intuition and reasoning to be the foundation for morality; and because machines will takeover the human economy, human centered capitalism / welfare states will no longer be the optimal way to structure an economy.

The two most likely futures are: techno-humanism (humans become part machine) or data-ism (humans become functionally obsolete and are replaced by intelligent machines that will likely not be conscious).

Harari indicates that techno-humanism would likely collapse on itself pretty quickly and that data-ism is our more likely future.

II. Harari is a Great Writer and Historian

It’s hard not to envy Harari as a writer: he’s logical, funny, insightful, and has an uncanny ability to elucidate complex subjects through pithy one-liners, stories, and thought experiments.

We’d all be a lot smarter if more non-fiction writers wrote with his intelligence.

Harari also does an incredible job of identifying and explaining the drivers of human material and cultural development.

III. Harari Adds Little to Futurism

Most of the main ideas in Harari’s analysis of the future can be found in deeper and more expansive works (writers along the lines of Ray Kurzwel, Robin Hanson, etc.)

While Harari’s writing and analytical abilities make him a first class historian, these skills do less work in enabling him to make insightful predictions about the future.

What I would have thought would be obvious topics of deep exploration – such as technical analysis of the computing power needed for a singularity type event, as well as the underpinnings of consciousness – receive very little treatment.

Harari just argues that data-ism will likely occur and that we can’t really predict what that will be like.

I would have loved to read a much deeper analysis of on how and when data-ism might occur, as well as some hard thinking about what economics and values might govern this new world.

Sapiens is required reading.

Homo Dues is worth reading, but, unfortunately, it’s not groundbreaking.

Where is all the good information?

Reflections on information seeking post Trump:

Where Good Information is Fleeing 

Twitter: Twitter has lost 10 IQ points since Trump’s election. I’m not sure that this is a bad thing; it’s just that calling out asinine political behavior doesn’t take that much intelligence. Given that people should be calling out Trump’s bad behavior – and that Twitter is a good place to call people out – the fact that Twitter has gotten worse just seems to be an unfortunate byproduct of Trump’s election. But, while Anti-Trump Twitter might be reasonable, it’s not particularly interesting. So I’m on Twitter much less now.

Short Blog Posts: I see less and less good information happening when smart people write 1-2 pithy paragraphs about complex subjects. I just don’t learn as much. Moreover, whenever these people write on issues I know a lot about, I see how grossly they err, which makes me trust their other pieces even less.

Facebook: Basically useless at this point. All I want is friends and cat videos, all I get is 3rd rate political pontification.

Where Good Information is Emerging 

Protests and Actions: Over the past few months, my willingness to march and protest has risen significantly. Given that the immigration marches seem to have had some social and political effect, I lump this into the category of “good information.” I sent good information by participating; moreover, I gain good information by understanding what people really care about and what politicians will listen to.

Long Blog Posts: I’ve been gravitating more and more towards long blog posts: think Stratechery and slatestarcodex. When smart people spend a few weeks thinking about something and then write 1-2K words on it, you very well might learn something. I’ve also tried to shift my blogging toward this direction, with the aim of being more intellectual rigorous in each post.

Work: I’ve tried to engage in more narrow and deeper intellectual explorations at work, with the aim of spending 2-3 months on a topic and going deep on the relevant research and experts. While I think blogs and Twitter are useful for having a broad surface understanding of many issues, I’ve found carving out space to go deep on areas of interest to be hugely beneficial. There is a lot of good information in the best books and research on a given topic.

Mentors: I’m spending more time in coffee / dinners / drinks with the smartest people I know. With best folks, signal to noise ratio is wonderful and I can really pressure ideas through curiosity and debate, rather than through retweets and comments.

In Sum

Trump has turned Twitter and short blog posts into tribal warfare. While there was always some of this on social media, it’s much worse now. Perhaps this is best for the country, perhaps not. But it’s surely not good for information seeking.

Given this, I’m devoting more time to learning through getting out into the world, working more, reading longer blog posts, and spending more time with mentors.

 

More Money or More Charter Schools?

I review some of the recent research in a post at Education Next.

Here’s some math from the post:

Increasing Funding by Even 10% is Insanely Expensive

Consider a hypothetical town with 50,000 students, all of them who are in poverty, and a per-pupil allocation of $10,000.

Over ten years, increasing per-pupil by 10% will cost the town a half a billion dollars.

To put the costs in context: on average, it costs around $1,000,000 to launch a new charter school that serves 500 students.

This puts the cost of the charter intervention at roughly $100,000,000.

Also: the charter costs are one-time costs.

So over a ten-year period, the total bill for increasing funding by 10%: $500 million.

The total cost for scaling urban charters to serve all 50,000 students: $100 million.

For a fifth of the cost, you probably get 3-5X the achievement impact.

Do read the whole piece.

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-11-10-21-am

Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-11-15-45-am

Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.