Category Archives: Charter School Districts

Liberia is relinquishing. Is it working? 1st year results are in.

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Over the past few years, Liberia has embarked on an ambitious project to partner with non-governmental school networks.

Even more daring: Liberia’s political leadership is parterning with foreign school operators, some of which are for-profit.

Imagine for a second if, after Katrina, New Orleans political leaders had decided to partner with school operators from Singapore, Finland, and Shanghai.

In Liberia, numerous short-term and long-term risks abound – as do extremely high-potential upsides.

Partnership schools achieved .18 SD gains in one year 

Whatever one thinks of Liberia’s strategy, kudos to them for partnering with school networks in a manner that allowed for randomized control trials. Because schools were randomly selected for partnership, we can get a better understanding on whether or not the providers are delving a better education.

In aggregate, the first year effects were large: students in partnership schools scored 0.18 standard deviations higher in English and 0.18 standard deviations higher in mathematics than students in regular public schools. The authors note: “while starting from a very low level by international standards, this is the equivalent of 0.56 additional years of schooling for English and 0.66 additional years of schooling for math.”

Also, teachers are showing up more often: “teachers in partnership schools were 20 percentage points more likely to be in school during a random spot check (from a base of 40% in control schools).”

And teachers are teaching: “…16 percentage points more likely to be engaged in instruction during class time (from a base of 32% in control schools).”

Results varied by provider

The highest performing operators delivered ~.3 effects!: the Youth Movement for Collective Action (YMCA), Rising Academies, Bridge International Academies, and Street Child.

Second tier (very solid .15 effects): BRAC and More than Me.

Third tier (no effect): Omega and Stella Maris.

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Students receiving 2X learning time

This was incredible to me: “students in partnership schools spent twice as much time learning each week, when taking into account reduced absenteeism, increased time-on-task, and longer school days.”

Costs running a bit high (but to be expected in start-up)

The authors note that operators were spending more per-pupil than traditional schools; while this is a warning sign, I don’t read much into it now, as start-up efforts generally run higher and than smooth out. The exact same pattern happened in New Orleans.

What is the impact on traditional educators and schools?

As in the United States, non-governmental school operator growth impacts the traditional system, which has both programmatic and political consequences.

In an odd twist, the government contracts limited the class sizes of networks, which forced some operators to turn away students who then had to find other schools.

Operators also fired existing teachers, which presumably benefited children but caused adult hardship and risks political blowback.

I predict that these issues will only increase in salience. They require solutions that are both programmatic (government regulation of student equity issues) and political (ensuring that adult incumbents don’t derail positive efforts).

Teacher supply issues may get worse

The researchers note that to the extent that operators were able to recruit better teachers – and that the supply of teachers does not change – operators will be unable to scale and achieve the same effects.

In New Orleans we faced the same issue: we failed to grow high-quality teacher pipelines at the same pace we grew operators, and this caused operator growing pains midway through their scaling plans.

I hope Liberia gets ahead of this.

Is it worth it?

The perennial (and reasonable) question asked in such efforts is always: is it worth it? Is the disruption to families and educators worth the gain?

This question was asked a lot in New Orleans. I (as with the majority of New Orleanians) believe that it was worth it in New Orleans.

But I do think the Liberia case is more complicated, as it involves issues of national institutions and sovereignty.

There are numerous risks to outsourcing school operations to international organizations.

What if you end up in a conflict with the home nation(s) of large operators? What if these operators inculcate undesirable foreign values to your culture? What if the outsourcing of your educational operations slows down the overall maturation of your civil society?

These are hard questions.

My guess is that it is worth it, in that the gains of having a much better educated populace are worth the trade-offs of relying on foreign operators.

But I am not an expert in international development and I have not studied the issue enough to have strong opinions.

All that being said, all involved deserve our praise: the government is trying hard to serve their citizens, the school networks are serving students in extremely difficult situations, and the students themselves are getting smarter.

Here’s hoping the positive results continue.

Phase II of the charter and choice research agenda is extremely important

In a recent post, I summarized much of the research on charter school and high choice cities.

The short of it: there’s a strong body of evidence that urban charter schools outperform traditional schools, and a nascent body of evidence that thoughtfully implemented high choice cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

It’s worth taking a moment to celebrate this: the research on urban charter schools is an impressive body of work built on twenty years of studying the incredible efforts of educational entrepreneurs. It’s wonderful to see these schools working.

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But as charters scale, additional questions need to be studied.

More specifically:

  1. Do urban charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomes?
  2. What happens to traditional schools when charter schools expand?
  3. What happens to students when under-enrolled traditional schools eventually close?
  4. What happens to cities that transition to majority charter systems?

A few recent studies have shown that charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomesthat charter school expansion can improve traditional schools; that student attending schools that are closed actually benefit from the closure so long as good new schools are being continually opened; and, as noted in the previous post, that majority charter cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

But there are also studies that indicate the opposite. Charter students in Texas did not have greatly improved life outcomes; students in Baton Rouge did not increase achievement after their schools were closed; and cities such as Detroit continue to struggle despite high charter penetration.

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Personally, I most care about questions (1) and (4). If charter schools end up delivering better life outcomes, and majority charter cities work, I’d be willing to accept some interim negative effects of charter expansion and school closures. But I understand that the latter effects could cause hardship for families, and I’m heartened to see early examples that show that charter expansion can be coupled with gains for all students.

So here’s to holding out for the best scenario: I truly hope that phase II of the research agenda shows that charters increase life outcomes, that charter school expansion and failing school closure benefits all students, and that majority charter systems deliver benefits for all students.

Initial research indicates that this might be possible, which is really exciting.

The Big Short, David Kirp, Newark, Union City, New Orleans

 

I saw The Big Short last night. It is an excellent movie and I agreed with much of its implicit and explicit critique of banks, government, and consumers.

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David Kirp has a piece on Newark in the New York Time today. He argues that Union City (district reform) is a better path than Newark reforms (including expanding Newark’s charter schools).

He did not mention New Orleans in his piece.

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I’ve written a lot on Newark.

You can read the shortest and most direct version here.

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As with most great movies, in The Big Short the audience feels connected to the protagonists.

In The Big Short, the protagonists are those betting against the big banks by shorting the housing market.

Here is how I personally related to the protagonists: I feel like I hold an opinion that most people view as wrong (that charter districts will outperform traditional districts); that I have data to support this case (New Orleans + CREDO analysis of urban charter markets); and that many people are either ignoring or misinterpreting this data.

Of course, this is a fairly self-serving way of looking at the world (and watching a movie). And the world is surely more complicated than this. As such, I try to check myself as often as I can.

But most of us who takes sides on an issue, except in moments of deeply honest reflection, are the heroes of our own story – and I’m no different, especially when caught up in watching a great movie.

I’m sure that David Kirp views his tribe as the protagonists who are fighting against the corporate reformers who have all the power and money.

There is some truth in this.

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Another way to say all this: strong opinions are inherently egoistic, as such, it is often best that they are weakly held.

I sometimes worry that my strong opinions are no longer weakly held.

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What I loved about The Big Short – and financial markets as a whole – is that there is a way to call bullshit.

You can short the people who are wrong.

I wish there was an accepted way to do this in public policy that actually worked.

First, I want there to be a way to more quickly correct policy beliefs that I believe are harming children.

Second, I want to hold people (including myself) accountable for our beliefs.

Third, as with most competitive people, I want to win.

I try to keep the first reason, rather than third reason, at the forefront.

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Last year, when Doug Harris’ study came out and demonstrated that New Orleans had achieved greater academic gains than any other urban school district that the researchers knew of, I thought this would change people’s opinions on whether the reforms worked.

I’m not sure that it did.

Instead, the argument shifted to the gains coming at too high of a cost. And to the gains not being replicable in other cities.

In short, the goal posts were moved.

If you have not made a bet, you can move the goal posts all day long.

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Of course, I might be wrong about my beliefs.

If I end up being wrong, I hope that I am honest enough to close down this blog with a post that says: I was wrong.

Most of all, I’ll be saddened that I devoted a good bit of my working years to something that did not help anyone.

Managing Humans is a Form of Cultural Evolution

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I’m reading: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

The book is good, but it feels overly long, and I don’t know if I will finish it.

The main premise of the book is that accumulated cultural wisdom drives much of human progress.

For example, if you were dropped off in the middle of the Amazon, you would probably die because you are not a part of a culture that has developed the knowledge necessary to survive in this environment.

This may seem obvious, but it is still profound.

We survive not only because of our individual intelligence but also because of our collective intelligence, and our collective intelligence is often narrowly tailored to the environment of our birth.

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Here is how Patrick Collison, the founder of Stripe, describes their organization:

We’re relatively conventionally organized. There’s always a temptation to reconceive the nature of humanity and social structure; you should really try to discourage that inner voice. First, think about all the risks you’re taking in your business. The standard ways of organizing a businesses are empirically sufficient for creating Google, Facebook, etc. Do you really want to add your novel organizational ontology as an additional business risk factor? Second, you’re not going to be very good at anticipating the problems with any alternative that you might conceive, since — chances are — many of the future problems are ones you won’t have encountered before.

Here is Sam Altman in the Startup Playbook:

One mistake that CEOs often make is to innovate in well-trodden areas of business instead of innovating in new products and solutions. For example, many founders think that they should spend their time discovering new ways to do HR, marketing, sales, financing, PR, etc. This is nearly always bad. Do what works in the well-established areas, and focus your creative energies on the product or service you’re building.

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Managing humans is a form of cultural evolution.

Over time, we have figured out ways to organize humans to accomplish great things.

When I helped start NSNO, I had no idea how to manage humans. Luckily, great people on our team taught me how to do this.

I also read a lot of books.

Now, whatever the endeavor, I take the time to create: goals, a strategy, core values, vehicles for individual feedback, and systems to monitor overall progress.

Of course, I don’t do this perfectly, but I always do it.

Humans have evolved to manage other humans in a manner that, when done well, can be inspiring, meaningful, and lead to great things being accomplished.

As such, I don’t try to reinvent the human management wheel that has been created by our human ancestors.

My marginal units of energy are most often spent on (1) human management execution; and  (2) product innovation.

I try not to bother with human management innovation. You probably shouldn’t either.

Rather, you should focus on product innovation.

In our team’s case, that means spending energy on trying to figure out how society can best deliver an excellent education to all children.

We have a long way to go, but early results are promising:

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Trying to be Popular vs. Trying to Change What’s Popular

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Bryan Caplan recently tweeted this:

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For some type of leadership, being popular is very important. It is difficult for a politician to get anything done if they can’t get elected to office. Being popular is key.

For other types of leadership, it’s less important to be popular; rather, it’s more important that your ideas are popular.

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial entitled: “Can CPS be Saved?” [HT Smarick]

The editorial contained this tidbit:

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Hell will likely freeze over before I’ll be a politically viable candidate to lead Chicago Public Schools.

But it’s nice to see the ideas of this blog gaining traction.

Of course, the ideas on this blog only exist because of the great work of a lot of educators, as well as the intellectual contributions of a lot of incredible thinkers.

It takes a village, as they say.

No One Knows if Charter School Districts Will Work

A couple of impetuses for this post:

1. This Politico Pro article: The New Orleans Model is Praised but Unproven.

2. An idea from Taleb’s Antifragile: it is much easier to predict what will vanish than it is to predict what will take it’s place.

3. Cowen’s First Law: “There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).”

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Here’s what I think we know:

1. The creation of a charter school district has led to significant academic growth in New Orleans, though absolute scores remain low.

2. New Orleans leaders have made plenty of mistakes along the way.

That’s really about it. And this is not to say that we know (1) with a 100% certainty. The New Orleans reform effort was not a controlled experiment. But nearly all of the data leads to this being a reasonable conclusion.

I would also venture this: not a lot has worked in achieving significant academic gains in urban school systems that serve at-risk students.

So the fact that New Orleans students have achieved such gains is very important.

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Here’s what I hope we will know ten years from now:

1. Other cities can also achieve academic growth by becoming charter school districts.

2. New Orleans can become an excellent school district because of becoming a charter school district.

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I often struggle to balance: being an advocate for an idea, attempting to implement an idea, and studying whether the idea is working.

In my work, I do all three very often, and it’s hard to do all three well at the same time.

When you’re advocating for an idea, it can be difficult to objectively study it, as your emotions get caught up in the communications effort.

When you’re implementing an idea, it can be difficult to (honestly) bullishly advocate for it, because you understand how hard the work is.

When you’re studying an idea, it can be difficult to advocate for it, because you understand how complicated the data is.

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In writing longer pieces I am often most successful at being disciplined: I am clear that the idea of charter school districts working is only a hypothesis, and that the goal of the next ten years of work should be to determine if this hypothesis is true.

On twitter, I’m probably the least disciplined, though I’m working on this.

One last note, most people who actually work in New Orleans are pretty honest and disciplined in saying that the gains are real but they’re not good enough; we’ve made a lot of mistakes; we’re still trying to get better.

I think this mentality will take the city far.