Author Archives: nkingsl

Career advice for young people who care about education

Bill Gates recently just tweeted his career advice to you people:

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It’s great advice.

But to the extent you want to work in education, here’s where I would focus on.

I. 10 Million Students

There are about 50 million public schools students in the United States.

According to the NCCP, about 44% of these students live under 200% of the poverty line (~$50K for family of 4). And about 22% live under the cover line (~$25K for family of 4).

For this modeling exercise, let’s set the goal scaling great education opportunities to the poorest 30% of public schools students.

In most cities I work in, usually around 25% of low-income students are currently being served by high-quality schools.

That leaves about 11.25M students underserved.

To make the math a little easier, let’s call it 10M students.

To date, charter schools are one of the few interventions that have consistently shown positive effects.

Roland Fryer recently reviewed 196 studies and identified charter schools as one of four interventions that seem to work.

If we want to meet the needs of these 10M students, scaling high-performing charter schools is a solid big bet to work on.

Of course, it’s not the only possible path to better serving 10M students, but I think it’s the most likely path for success.

If I was young and figuring out what to do, this is where I’d begin my career.

II. Getting to 10 Million: the 50K CMOs

KIPP, which serves around 80K students, has already passed the 50K mark. This is amazing.

Others, such as IDEA public schools, and Success Academies, have publicly stated they want to get near or surpass the 50K mark.

A few organizations I know of our considering this type of growth as well.

All in, let’s say that over the next decade we’ll serve 500K students with the highest growth CMOs.

III. Getting to 10 Million: the 10K CMOs

I did a quick scan of CMOs I’m familiar with and identified another 20 CMOs or so that have growth plans for around 10K students.

There are also a lot of 1-2K CMOs coming out of various incubators, so let’s assume another 20 or so emerge.

Give or take, that’s another 500K students.

IV. Where Will the Other 9 Million Come From?

Assuming current trends continue, and we don’t see that many +100K CMOs emerge, then we’ll need to build a lot of 10K CMOs.

About 900 of them… are there 900 people in this country who can operate high-quality 10K student CMOs?

Or 1,800 5K CMOs… are there 1800 people in this country who can operate high-quality 5K student CMOs?

Or maybe CMOs will start to scale and we’ll need 20 500K CMOs… are there 20 people in the country who could accomplish this amazing feat?

You get the idea.

I don’t know how the sector will develop.

As a career choice, it’s interesting to think about helping a single CMO scale to 500K or to try and lead a CMO that gets to 10K.

 

V. The Incentives to Scale

The more I ponder this question, the more and more I keep coming back to incentives.

Places like Silicon Vally intentionally construct every incentive toward scale: founder wealth comes from equity and investor wealth comes 10-20% of investments being home-runs.

Even more physical companies (fast food chains, retail stores, etc.) operate under similar incentives.

In the charter world, the way to get large amounts of philanthropy is to grow, but this money is different: the investors are losing money (they give it away) and the founders are personally gaining nothing (all the money goes to their organization).

Spot the difference?

All that being said, we do have for-profit charter schools in this country, and they have failed to produce great outcomes at scale for children.

Another twist: the best emerging international school organizations have often been for-profit organizations.

So why has the profit incentive had more effect intentionally than domestically?

I’d try to think about that if I was young and trying to scale great schools.

VI. The Knowledge and Technology to Scale

Even if the incentives are right, sometimes a job is just too hard to achieve with our current knowledge and technology.

Perhaps the reason we only have ~50 high-quality scaled CMOs is that right know our knowledge and technology significantly restricts the amount of people who can succeed as a CMO leader.

It’s possible that further codification of knowledge and better software could increase the number of high-quality CMOs.

Maybe that’s a problem you could spend your life solving.

VII. It’s a Hard Problem

This is why we need great people working on it!

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.

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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.

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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.

Quick feedback for the New York Times

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The NYT just published an article on NYC’s school choice system.

The article is worth reading for its qualitative insights into what it’s like to navigate the system. I have deep empathy for families that struggle to find great schools for their children. They deserve much better.

But the framing of the piece is flawed, and I hope other journalists don’t repeat this mistake in future articles.

The authors argue that school choice has not delivered on its promise because many students still don’t have access to great schools.

But school choice does not increase the supply of great schools; rather, it is a mechanism to allow families to choose from schools that already exist.

School choice is about access and fairness. You can assign families to schools based on their address, or you can try to create more just systems. I strongly believe we should do the latter.

But increasing equity of access will likely not lead to dramatic jumps in quality.

It is only be creating new schools, scaling the best schools, and improving existing schools that quality increases. This is not the job of a citywide enrollment system.

Moreover, if you increase access but restrict supply you well get frustration. And this is exactly what has happened in New York City. The city’s enrollment system persists, but its efforts to increase supply have faltered.

When NYC leaders have focused on increasing supply – both through the small schools movement and growing the charter sector – rigorous research found that school quality increased. The results of these efforts are detailed below.

In sum:

School choice is all about equity in access.

School supply is about creating better options.

We should not confuse the two, and we should not expect school choice to increase school performance in and of itself. It must be coupled with a deep focus on school supply.

Small schools results:

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Charter results:

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Is Tyler Cowen right to be stubbornly attached to economic growth?

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Tyler Cowen just published Stubborn Attachments in e-book form.

With the book, you get deep exposure to Tyler’s mental model of the world.

As someone who attempts to collect mental models for subsequent application, I came away smarter for having read it.

Below I’ll try and restate Tyler’s main practical arguments (skipping over some of the philosophy) and then end with some questions and concerns.

Tyler’s Primary Thesis: Sustainable Economic Growth Should Guide Our Policy Making

Tyler argues that sustainable economic growth should guide much of our policy making because, over centuries, the gains from economic growth dwarf the gains of just about all other considerations.

He defines sustainable economic growth as gains in “wealth plus,” which “includes traditional measures of economic value, as would be found in gdp statistics, but also measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.”

Over let’s say a 5,000 years, consider two possibilities:

No economic growth: We stay the same. Poverty is all around us. People are starving. Billions of people barely get by. Life is hard for so many people.

Modest economic growth: We grow at 2% a year. In 5,000 years, future humans (assuming no population explosion) are crazy wealthy, have access to amazing technology, and even the poorest humans view the richest people of today as paupers. No one is losing sleep trying to make ends meet. Every person has every material need taken care of, plus the wealth to pursue their passions and interests.

In other words, the difference between poverty as we know it and each of us feeling like Bill Gates was materially poor is determined by one thing: sustainable economic growth.

So when we’re making policy decisions we should keep our eye on the prize: sustainable economic growth is what will allow us to flourish.

Of course, in order for you to accept this argument you have to be ok with two assumptions: future lives matter a lot (so we should focus on pro-growth policies that benefit future people), and, increased wealth leads to increased well-being (Tyler runs through the research).

While both of these assumptions are contentious, I believe both to be correct.

Other Considerations: Individual Rights, the Environment, and Social Stability 

Tyler’s provides guardrails and depth to the concept of sustainable economic growth.

First, Tyler argues that we shouldn’t harm individuals to achieve economic growth; i.e., no mass murder even if it helps us squeak out an additional point of growth.

Second, he argues that we shouldn’t destroy the planet in order to achieve economic growth; i.e., what’s the point of focusing on the future benefits of economic growth if there’s no place to live.

Third, he argues that societal stability is an important part of sustainable growth. So policies that might not seem purely connected to growth (such as welfare state) should be considered as part of an effort to maintain the continuity of our civilization.

All of these seem correct to me, though as I’ll argue at the end, I wonder if this last point (societal continuity) is actually what we should be most focused on.

Major Shifts in How We Think and Feel: Redistribute for Growth Only 

Perhaps the biggest practical implication of Tyler’s thesis is that, according to him, “we should redistribute only up to the point which maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth.”

In other words, we should only give a starving person food if this can be tied to maximizing the rate of sustainable economic growth, not because we feel that the starving person deserves something to eat.

While this rationale logically follows from his assumptions, this line of thinking departs greatly from current values. Most of us justify the welfare state in terms of our care for living and breathing humans, not for future humans.

Tyler’s argument for redistribution is a monumental shift from our current moral calculus.

That being said, it’s possible the our current lack of opportunity is reducing sustainable economic growth, so for now Tyler’s thesis may actually call for an increase in certain types of charity and transfers.

But I predict that most people will find his logic emotionally unappealing.

Anti-Fragility > Sustainable Economic Growth 

As much as I appreciated Tyler’s argument, I think I disagree, though I’m not sure both because I’m still grappling with the text.

Ultimately I believe that “anti-fragility,” rather than “sustainable economic growth” should be the language we use to guide our policy decisions, and I think, though I’m not sure, that this puts me at odds with Tyler.

Consider this hypothetical: would you rather have rather have a million years of infinitesimal  economic decline (.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% a year) and then human extinction or a thousand years of 5% economic growth and then human extinction.

I think almost everyone (including Tyler?) would choose the former.

While economic growth will likely make our society less fragile, this is not inevitable, and we need to incorporate this understanding in choosing guiding principles.

This thought experiment points to the idea that it’s actually the sustainability of a healthy society, and not the sustainability of economic growth, that we desire.

Most of us would accept small amounts of negative economic growth for hundreds of thousands of years of additional existence.

Similarly, I don’t think most of us would take high economic growth and a population explosion that had most people living at substance levels, even if this led to a sustainable society with high amounts of leisure.

So I would argue:

  • Sustainable economic growth is a sub-goal of anti-fragility; it should not be the primary goal in and of itself.
  • Economic growth should be considered in both societal and per-capita terms.
  • I would maintain Tyler’s support for individual rights.
  • I would make environmental sustainability, like economic growth, a sub-goal of anti-fragility.

In sum: anti-fragility and individual rights do all the work. Everything else follows from these two principles.

Thanks + Do the Work Yourself

All that being said, economic growth is clearly one of the primary ways to make our civilization less fragile, so in this sense I agree with many of the practical implications of Tyler’s worldview.

And Tyler’s mental model will be present in my head next time I’m trying to unpack an efficiency vs. equity argument on a specific policy.

Lastly, I do think that everyone should go through the process Tyler went through; ultimately, each of us should understand the philosophical underpinnings of our policy preferences.

I thank Tyler for his contribution.

How does a MGMT team figure out what their organization does?

On its face – “what does your organization do?” – should be an easy question for a MGMT to answer.

But it’s a hard question that I doubt many MGMT teams could accurately answer.

Three Reasons for “What We Do” Failure 

First and foremost, MGMT often confuse the question “what do we do?” with the question “how will we succeed?”

Second, MGMT teams often can’t say what they do in 1-2 sentences because they have failed to achieve clarity around their core activities.

Third, MGMT teams often can’t articulate the tactics and tasks that employmees execute in the daily carrying out of “what we do.”

My Tactics Failure 

Recently, I was struggling with executing and felt that achieving my goals was at-risk.

I then tried to think of what more I could do to achieve my goals.

I then realized that I wasn’t sure I possessed the full list of tactics I could pull from.

In short, I could not articulate the tactics and tasks of what we do.

Conducting a “What We Do” Audit 

Our team of four is twenty months old. And half our team has been with us for about a year or less.

This January, we achieved clarity on exactly what we do.

But we have not yet achieved clarity on what we do each day.

In hindsight, I think we should have brainstormed a tactics list before we launched our work.

That being said, codifying what we do each day after 20 months of work is not a terrible place to be in, given that you need time under your belt to figure out what you do each day.

To ensure we’re all learning from each other’s tactics – and building out a what we do toolkit – we’re conducting a three step process.

First, we’re going to articulate the major categories of daily work; i.e., “coach CEOs” and “coordinate with other philanthropists.”

Second, we’re going to list out all the tactics that fall within these categories.

Then we’re going to pressure test our categories and tactics, and debate if / why they are things we should be doing.

Building for Effectiveness and Scale

Conducing this “what we do audit” and codifying the tactic toolkit will ideally help with efficacy (each of us is drawing from a great toolkit built with our collective knowledge) and scale (if the team grows new members won’t have to learn solely from modeling and direct experience).

Of course, it’s impossible to codify everything it takes to execute at the highest level. No team is self-aware enough to codify everything, and the work is complicated enough that new situations will require first principles analysis of execution tactics.

But efficacy and innovation are born out of deep knowledge. And codification is a way of increasing knowledge.

How to make strategy less confusing by getting rid of the word strategy

For many years I thought strategy was one thing when in reality it is two things.

I thought strategy was answering the question: (1) how will you achieve your mission?

In reality, strategy is answering two questions: (1) what will you do? and (2) how will you succeed?

I thank Patrick Lencioni for helping me achieve this clarity, as well as our current team for thoughtfully working through both of these questions when initially I had only worked through the first.

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For example: a non-profit’s mission might be to increase economic opportunity for low-income families.

This non-profit might then say that their strategy is to operate charter schools, raise money for post-secondary scholarships, and partner with local employers for job placements.

In this answer, the organization is answering the question: what will we do?

Alternatively, the non-profit might not mention the above and instead say that their strategy is to form incredibly deep partnerships with their families, develop the best teacher coaching program in the country, and use data analysis to find great college and career matches for their students.

In this answer, the organization is answering the question: how will we succeed?

Because “strategy” has evolved in to too broad of a concept, either answer might be deemed acceptable.

But it’s vial that an organization answers both questions.

As a leader, you need to be very clear about what is that your organization will do to achieve your mission.

As a leader, you also need to be very clear about how your organization will out-perform other organizations that are doing the exact same thing.

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Most often, I see leaders in the non-profit sector make the same mistake I made: they have only thought hard about what they will do.

Too often, leaders don’t spend enough time answering the question: how will we outperform everyone is who doing the exact same thing?

Rational compassion is a competitive advantage

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Paul Bloom recently wrote a book called Against Empathy.

The thesis of the book is: rational compassion > empathy.

In other words: empathy (caring how someone feels at the moment) is poor guide for moral decision making when compared to rational compassion (which is more utilitarian in nature).

The difference is easiest to see when it comes to parenting: an overly empathetic parent might respond to a child’s failure by giving the child a cookie (thereby immediately decreasing the child’s suffering), while a parent utilizing rational compassion might help the child process her emotions (thereby reducing the probability of future instances of suffering).

While the idea is rather intuitive, we’re so hardwired for empathy that practicing rational compassion, especially at work, is very difficult.

Because it’s so hard to practice, and because most people are not good at it, the consistent use of rational compassion can be a competitive advantage for doing good in both the for-profit and non-profit sector.

List of Areas Where Rational Compassion > Empathy at the Work Place

Executing strategies that cause short-term harm for long-term gain: Tough decisions (such as school closures) cause short-term pain to others but can provide significant long-term outcomes. Being guided by rational compassion can help you get through this pain.

Pivoting and cannibalizing: Similarly, at times an organization needs to destroy existing program lines and harm existing beneficiaries of their work in order to pivot to a more productive model which will eventually add move value to more people (think Netflix going from mailbox to streaming). Empathy for existing employees and customers can blind one from the rationally compassionate act of eventually serving more people better.

Performance feedback: Rational compassion will lead you to give very direct and practical feedback so a colleague can improve her performance and achieve her and the organization’s goals. Having empathy for underperformance will lead to the avoidance of direct conversations, which in the short term causes more pain.

Firing people: Too much empathy for an individual who needs to be let go can cause immense harm to the people you are trying to serve. Especially in philanthropic work, firing a relatively privileged person in order to better serve people in extreme need is the rationally compassionate thing to do.

Accepting flaws of ambitious people: Sometimes ambitious people have a lot of flaws, which can lead you to empathize with all the people they are negatively impacting. However, these flawed people can also change the world for the better. Analyzing their actions through a rational compassion lens will help you understand if it’s worth supporting or partnering with people who are flawed but who can help the world become amazingly better. It will also help you avoid working deeply with nice people who are not effective.

The Risk of Rational Compassion 

One of the hardest parts of rational compassion is that it often involves overriding the legitimate short-term needs of others.

In other words: you’re saying you know what’s better for someone than she does.

While this is less of a tension in managerial situations (it’s your job to make feedback, coaching, firing decisions) and for-profit work (the customer will ultimately hold you accountable), in philanthropy (where it’s your job to help others) this can be a deadly sin.

It’s a blurry line between rational compassion and technocratic hubris.

There’s no easy way around this, though research and accountability can help.

In education, test scores, attainment, and parent demand can provide medium term feedback loops to provide a check on incorrect rational compassionate assumptions.

But while there are risks with rational compassion, most of society is so tilted toward empathy (especially in the education sector!) that an increase in the practice of rational compassion would be a welcome turn.