Category Archives: Charter schools

Does anyone know why Chicago children are getting smarter?

If you just read the headlines, you might suspect that Chicago’s public schools are in a terrible tailspin. Part of this is the noise of big city politics. Part of this stems from cloud of violence that hangs over the city.

But Chicago has improved on academic test scores more than most other cities in the country. Rather than one of the worst, Chicago is one of the best.

A recent report by Sean Reardon and Rebecca Hinze-Pifer found that between 2009 and 2014:

“This [student achievement] growth rate [of Chicago] is higher than 96% of all districts in the US. Among the 100 largest districts in the country, the average growth rate from third to eighth grade is 0.95 grade equivalents per year; Chicago has the highest growth rate between third and eighth grade of any large district in the United States.”

The authors admit that they don’t know why this occurred.

I can’t prove why Chicago kids are getting smarter, but I have a hypothesis.

What’s Been Going on in Chicago Public Schools? 

One way to try and solve the mystery of why Chicago children are getting smarter is to look at the district’s previous major initiatives.

As this report details, between roughy 1990 and 2010 there were three overarching eras of reform in Chicago: the decentralization era, the the accountability era, and the do a lot of things era.

The authors are very careful to not attribute a causal relationship between reform eras and outcomes. The reforms were messy and not rolled out in an experimental manner – so fair enough.

But in this post I’ll try and make my best guess on what was causal and what was not.

The Decentralization Era

The decentralization era was best known for the creation of Local School Councils. This reform gave local councils real control over decisions about how schools were run. The councils were made up of school leadership, parents, and community members.

The councils always seemed like a terrible idea to me. It’s basically taking all we know about charter schools (good central offices, scalable instructional programs, governance matters) and doing the exact opposite!

Not surprisingly, research on the reforms found that the councils had some positive effects on advantage communities, but were least likely to improve schools in low-income communites. Communities with low social capital didn’t gain a lot from ad-hoc and poorly constructed local boards.

I’m very skeptical that the decentralization era and school councils were the root cause of later gains.

The Accountability Era

In 1995 Mayor Daly put in Paul Valls as the superintendent (I later worked with Paul when he was the superintendent of the RSD in Louisiana). Vallas, who did not have deep instructional expertise, used test driven accountability to try and make things better.

New tests, promotional standards, and interventions for failing schools were all put in place.

The reforms had better impacts for low-performing schools; the researchers noted:

“This was the only era to show large improvements in the lowest- achieving schools. However, the patterns in test scores in the lowest-performing schools suggest that some of the improvements resulted from instruction that was aligned specifically to the high stakes tests.”

This matches other research on accountability reforms: you tend to see gains in the lowest preforming schools, but the high stakes can cause narrowing of the curriculum.

 

The Do a Lot of Things Era

Arne Duncan came in after Vallas, and he instituted a lot of reforms.

Arne launched 100 new schools, implemented internal district instructional and curricular reforms, overhauled school leadership pipelines, and placed a deep focus on on-time high school progression.

Perhaps the biggest initiative of this era was the Renaissance 2010 project, which launched about a 100 new district, charter, and contract schools between 2005 and 2010.

Unfortunately, no one has conducted a full evaluation of the program. Someone should do this!

Two interim research reports came out around 2010. One study, which only included a few years of data from the early Renaissance cohorts, found that the new schools performed about the same as the existing district schools. The other study was inconclusive.

Not much help from the research community.

A lot of work was also done on school leadership. The Chicago Public Education Fund, in partnership with the district, invested heavily in school leader development, placing bets on both district based and non-profit providers.

The lastest research I could find on these programs found that “results indicate that one-year learning gains in elementary and high schools led by Fund-supported principals were not different than those in other similar schools.”

Another major reform, another mediocre result.

All told, researchers found that this era produced more gains in high school than elementary schools, but wrote: “while the effects of the dominant policies of Eras 1 and 2 are largely understood, much research remains to be done to understand both the positive and problematic effects of the policies in Era 3.”

Not super helpful, especially since this is the era that preceded the large gains in test scores that occurred after 2009.

What About the Charter Sector? 

CREDO published a report on Chicago charters that covered test scores from 2010 to 2012, which is right in the middle of the period where Chicago saw a lot of gains.

The study found +.01 effects in reading and +.03 effects in math. These effects amount to about a month or so of extra learning per year, maybe a bit less. Given Chicago’s relatively small charter market share, and the modest size of these positive effects, it’s unlikely that charters themselves accounted for the 2009-2014 gains.

A more recent study, which just looked at charter high school performance from 2010-2013, found much larger effects: +.2 effects on ACT related tests and much higher college enrollment rates.

These are large effects, but they are for high school only. The study lauding Chicago’s gains only covered grades 3-8.

So WTF Happened in Chicago to Make Kids Smarter?

To summarize: Chicago improved its test scores more than any other big city in the country, and researchers really don’t know why.

So why are Chicago kids getting smarter?

Here’s my guess: competition and accountability lifted all boats.

When you put accountability in place (the Vallas era) and then launch a 100 new schools (the Duncan era) you get a city where school leaders know there are consequences for failure and the best of the new schools begin to raise the bar for what’s possible.

This theory helps explain why the Renaissance schools and charter effects were a bit muted. In the studies on these reforms, researchers compared the new schools to existing schools. So if the existing schools were improving due to increased competition, you would not see large relative effects for the new schools.

I can’t prove that accountability and competition caused the results, but in many sectors accountability and competition make everyone better. It also fits stories we’ve seen elsewhere. In place like Denver and Washington D.C. increased competition led to all boats rising in the public school system.

If you have a better theory, let me know.

What Should Chicago Do Now? 

Here’s another tough question: if it was accountability and competition that caused Chicago’s gains, how should this impact Chicago’s future strategy?

Since 2002 (while the district was getting much better!) Chicago enrollment plummeted from 440,000 students to 370,000 students.

This means that there are lot of under-enrolled schools in the district and the city might have to go through another round of painful closures.

This also it means it’s harder to push the very reform (opening new schools) that might have driven Chicago’s previous gains in achievement.

So what should the city do?

Reasonable people can surely disagree, but I would continue to create new schools, albeit in a different fashion.

First, I’d open new schools in the areas where population is increasing. Chicago is made up of a lot of neighborhoods, and not all neighborhoods are losing children.

Second, I would do some replacement work. Instead of closing all the under-enrolled schools, I’d try and select some neighborhoods where there’s enough child density that you could imagine families coming back to the public schools if there were better options. I’d launch replacement schools in these neighborhoods.

There are clear drawbacks to this strategy. Politically, it’s hard to justify opening schools when you’re in the midst of closures. Programmatically, it’s hard sell to get the operators of new schools to open up in neighbors with shrinking enrollment.

But I think it’s the best thing for children.

Lastly, I might also try and launch some diverse by design schools.

In a city as diverse as Chicago, it’s sad that it’s schools are so segregated.

The Last Word

Chicago’s Chief Education Officer, Janice Jackson, recently gave her take on why things are better.

Her list: pre-k, better professional development, better curriculum, competition from private and charter schools, and clear accountability standards.

In her own words:

“I believe the level of transparency we have provided around what a quality school is has been transformational in this district.”

Don’t sacrifice the truth about charter schools in order to be agreeable

The New York Times just wrote a positive editorial about charter schools.

The editorial opened with this sentence [emphasis mine]:

“New York City is one of the rare places in the country where charter schools generally have made good on the promise to outperform conventional public schools in exchange for flexibility from the state that lets them lengthen the school day, alter the curriculum, do away with tenure and change how teachers are compensated.”

As a reminder, here’s the average effect of urban charter schools – from a study by the same researchers that the New York Times linked to in the above lead!

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So why did the New York Times write such a factually incorrect lead?

I think they probably did it to disarm those who might oppose them. By saying that most charter sectors have failed, they are aligning themselves with those suspicious of charter schools, which perhaps increases their ability to influence those on the fence.

This is a bad tactic. And it’s a habit I’ve been trying to kick: I too sometimes publicly hedge on the actual facts in order to relate to an audience.

This type of hedging is doubly dangerous.

First, it prizes short-term affiliation over the truth, which will eventually reduce your credibility when people find out what you really believe.

Second, you risk starting to believe yourself. It’s very difficult to maintain thoughtful and evidence driven policies under the best of circumstances. If you consistently say things you don’t really believe, you’ll soon forget what you really believe.

Here’s a better tactic: be expressive about values while you’re being direct about your beliefs.

Constantly talk about why you care about children, poverty, and the future of our country – at the same time you defend policies (like charter schools) that are controversial but impactful.

It’s good practice to expand the tent through shared values.

But don’t trade the truth for agreeableness.

It’s dishonest and counterproductive.

Education philanthropists should not take advice from Larry Summers

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Tyler Cowen just interviewed Larry Summers.

In a blog post about the interview, Tyler wrote: “if you think you know someone who is very smart, Larry is almost certainly smarter.”

This may be the case when it comes to economics. While I’m in no position to evaluate his economic policy claims, I found Summers to be reflective, curious, and thoughtful. He seems like the kind of person I would enjoy working with.

But Summers also discussed education philanthropy, and I came away with a strong belief that I almost certainly smarter than Summers on this subject.

I don’t say this because I for sure know that I’m right and Summers is wrong; rather, I say this because I have a firmer grasp of the research, more hands on experience, and a clearer strategic vision for scalable and sustainable change.

Given that Summers likely has a good 20-30 IQ points on me, and that he has risen to the top of an extremely competitive field, the fact that I’m likely smarter than Summers in this area is a testament to the powers of specialization and the domain specific nature of knowledge.

How should you spend a $100 million? 

In the interview, Tyler asked Summers how he would advise a philanthropist in St. Louis who wanted to give away a $100 million to help her city.  After admitting the he knew little about St. Louis, Summers answered the question more generally, and said that he would focus on public education.

As it happens, my job is to advise philanthropists who want to improve public education. Currently, our team manages the philanthropic giving for Reed Hastings and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Given my day job, I was curious to hear how Summers would respond.

Moreover, while he may not remember, Summers was once asked about relinquishment during an interview on education reform (I was in attendance and vividly remember him saying “Ah, relinquishment…”), and I was curious to see if my ideas had impacted him at all.

They have not!

Summer’s advice: avoid charter schools and work outside the system 

In the interview, Summers gave two pieces of advice to education philanthropists:

  1. Avoid charter schools: Too many philanthropists set-up charter schools that cream students, pay teachers salaries that are not sustainable on the public dollar, and then ultimately cannibalize the traditional system of good students, good teachers, and public funds.
  2. Avoid the K12 system: Instead of trying to tackle the core K-12 system, it’s better to fund efforts that work around the system, such as after school or summer school.

I think both of these points are wrong.

Summers ignores a large evidence base on charter schools

I recently summarized the evidence on charters schools on this blog. Summers ignores most of this research:

Achievement: Urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools, posting annual effects of .05-.1 standard deviations. This holds true with both quasi-experimental designs (where researchers try to control for student selection) and experimental designs (where student selection is randomized). Charters are not achieving their impacts because of student creaming.

Funding: Charter schools, on average, receive much less funding than traditional schools. As I previously wrote about, in numerous cities where charter schools receive less money, they still outperform the traditional system.

Teacher Pay: Nationally, traditional school teachers have higher average salaries than charter school teachers. And while some of this is due to the effect that charters hire younger teachers, I have seen no research that indicates that, at scale, charters are picking off the best teachers by offering them unsustainable salaries.

Impact on Traditional Schools: Lastly, most research shows that charter schools have positive or neutral effects on traditional school achievement. Moreover, cities that have improved their educational systems over the past decade have often seen rising charter school enrollment during the same period. Washington D.C. and Denver stand out as primary examples of cities where all schools got better as charter schools expanded.

All boats rising – and not cannibalism – is the norm.

It appears that Summers is reasoning from anecdote rather research.

I am sure there are  some charter organizations that cream students and spend way above the public dollar (I can think of a few!), but these are outliers.

At scale, urban charter schools achieve more and spend less than traditional public schools.

Working outside the system is low impact and not leveraged with existing public funds

Summer’s second piece of advice – work outside the system rather than fix the system itself – is also flawed.

Yes, fixing the system is hard. But kids spend a lot of time in the system. It will be very difficult to improve public education if you ignore what happens to students from 8 AM to 3 PM for 13 years.

Moreover, to the extent that a philanthropist funds an outside the system intervention that works, the only way to scale the intervention is with more philanthropy or increased public revenues. There is no leverage with existing public dollars.

While I am not against raising additional public revenue for things that work, I think we should spend most of our energy improving the effectiveness of the dollars we already spend, especially given that systems level K12 interventions (like urban charter schools), are achieving success at scale.

If there was no evidence that the system could be fixed, I would tend to agree with Summers. But as more and more cities breakthrough and achieve citywide gains, the logic of working mostly outside the system is increasingly flawed. The one exception I’d make to this claim is pre-school, which has a reasonably strong evidence base and is increasingly funded with public dollars.

If you are a philanthropist who wants to improve public education in your city, please contact me 

In the event that Tyler’s question was not hypothetical in nature, and that there is a philanthropist in St. Louis who wants to donate a $100 million, I do hope she contacts me (neeravkingsland at gmail) rather than takes Summers’ advice.

I am a firm believer that philanthropy well spent can forever positively alter the trajectory of a city’s public educational system.

And while those of us advocating for systems level change still have much to prove, we now have numerous examples of cities achieving citywide improvements for their most at-risk students. Philanthropists should double down on their successes, evolve the model based on local conditions, and continue to fund further research so we can keep on learning.

If you want to be a superintendent build a school district

I cross paths with many people who want to become a superintendent of a large city school district.

Most of these people feel that this is the ultimate leadership position when it comes to serving children in need.

When I ask why, they say: “that’s where the kids are.”

I usually say: “this is not an immutable condition.”

Charter leaders are building some of the largest school districts in the country 

The most scaled high-performing charter network, KIPP, serves nearly a 100,000 students.

Right now, KIPP is around the 40th biggest school district in the country.

I bet within a decade it will be in the top 10 biggest school districts in the country.

A few other CMOs are on track to serve 100,000 students within the decade as well.

Within 10-15 years, a quarter of the top 25 biggest school districts in the country may be charter networks.

You can spend 15 years building an amazing school district or 3 years trying to fix a broken one 

KIPP is about 20 years old. Given all we know now (thanks in part to KIPP and other early CMOs), new charter founders should be able to hit the 100,000 student mark in less time.

With a bunch of hard and a bit of luck, the best entrepreneurs in the country should be able to replicate KIPP’s success and build 100,000 student CMOs in 10-15 years.

Compare this to being a superintendent: you inherit a struggling school district and have on average about 2-4 years to try and make it better before you are pushed out.

A few incredible superintendents succeed in making a dent, but most don’t.

As a charter founder, so much more of your potential for impact is in your control. And if you get results your board generally won’t fire you; rather, they’ll encourage you to serve more students.

There are about 10-15 million students attending public school and living in poverty

If the high-performing charter community could build 100 school districts that each served 100K students, we could provide nearly all students living in poverty with a great public education.

Are there a 100 people (or teams) in this country that can build a 100K school district? I don’t know.

Leading a major charter network is an incredibly difficult job. We need to do all we can be doing to make it as sustainable as possible.

The future of educational opportunity in this country might depend on it.

[thanks to James Cryan and Norman Atkins for inspiring this post]

The KIPP pre-K study doesn’t tell us if KIPP pre-k works

Mathematica just published a study on KIPP pre-k. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (where I work) funded the study.

The study was well designed and asked a very important question: does high-quality charter pre-k provide benefits above and beyond simply attending a  high-quality charter elementary school?

The policy implications of this question are important: if high-quality charter pre-k adds to the achievement of students who attend high-performing elementary charter schools, policies that support both early child funding and charter school growth could accelerate achievement gains.

However, if attending a high-quality charter pre-k has no effect beyond the impact of simply attending a high-quality charter elementary school, then our limited public resources may be best spent on expanding high-quality charter elementary schools and not devoting as much resources to pre-k.

In other words, it’s really important to understand if:

KIPP pre-K + KIPP elementary > KIPP elementary

Unfortunately, due to small sample sizes as well as sample attrition, the researchers were not able to answer this question.

While the effects of KIPP pre-K + elementary were larger than the effects of KIPP elementary, these results were not significant.

The researchers write:

In reading, the magnitude of the positive impact was larger for the pre-K cohort than the kindergarten cohort on both the Letter-Word and Passage Comprehension tests administered in grade 2 (by 0.20 and 0.06 standard deviation units, respectively). Neither of these differences is statistically significant; however, the study did not have sufficient power to detect differences of this magnitude. Thus, they may be suggestive of some additional benefit in reading resulting from an offer of admission to KIPP pre-K, above and beyond the impact of an offer to KIPP in kindergarten.

In math, however, the impacts for both samples are identical, suggesting no additional benefit of KIPP pre-K beyond the impact of a KIPP elementary school.

Below you can see the estimated (non-significant) impacts:

 

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So, for now, we still don’t know if KIPP pre-k adds any value over KIPP elementary school.

This is no knock on KIPP or the researchers, it’s just the consequence of the limitations of working with small sample sizes that are subject to attrition.

That being said, I do think some of my friends are playing a little fast and loose in over interpreting this study, and I think we all need to be honest about the fact that we don’t yet know if KIPP pre-k “works.”

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.

Does it matter if charter schools make traditional schools better?

A new study found that traditional schools in New York City improved when charter schools opened up in the near vicinity. See this Chalkbeat article for coverage.

The effects were small for neighborhood impact (traditional schools improved +.02 SDs) and larger for co-locations (traditional schools improved +.06-.09 SDs).

What is the value of charter schools?

Charter schools could help students in two ways: (1) directly serving students and (2) increasing the performance of other schools.

I don’t believe that #2 must be true in order to support charter schools. The very fact that charter schools help the students they serve could be enough to warrant support.

An even more complicated question: what if charter schools increased the performance of the students they served but decreased the performance of traditional schools?

If, like me, you believed non-profit operation of schools should overtime supplant direct government operation of schools, then you still might support the expansion of charter schools. The negative impact of charter growth on traditional schools, while painful, could be a price worth paying if more children were benefitted by the new system over the long-haul.

Be careful how you justify your opinions 

The reason I make this point is that I don’t think we should tie the value of charter schools to their impact on nearby traditional schools.

While this impact is something we should understand – and if in some instances there are negative impacts we should we work to reduce them – ultimately, the fact that their might be a better way to do public education should be our Northstar.

Building the new system is more important to children than protecting the old system.

But hopefully we continue to find more evidence of win / win

That being said, this study is good news: it’s pretty amazing that New York City has grown a high-quality charter sector and that this sector has helped improved traditional schools.

Hopefully future studies will show the same.

But they might not. And expanding great public charter schools might still be the best thing for children.

So we should be cautious in justifying the existence of charter schools in how they impact traditional schools.

Ultimately, their highest and best use is likely to be in the creation of a better way to do public schooling at scale.