Category Archives: Charter schools

School supply or regulatory change – what should the Trump administration incentivize?

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Andy Smarick has a good short paper out where he gives advice to the new Trump administration.

He proposes a $250 million program that would fund “high-quality, high demand, highly accountable programs.”

In short, Andy proposes a federal fun to increase the supply of things like course choice, education savings accounts providers, voucher-based private schools – as well as the creation of innovative regulatory regimes that can monitor the performance of these entities.

I really like Andy’s suggestion that the federal government continue to invest in the creation of great providers for the following reasons:

Launching new schools and courses costs money, and given that most providers are non-profit organizations, they need funding in advance of receiving regular per-pupil revenue.

The federal government lacks knowledge of what local communities need; by funding entrepreneurs, the feds are backing those who can only succeed if they meet local demand, thereby reducing the risk that funds will work against local needs.

Innovation has positive externalities: it’s well known that, in the private sector, entrepreneurs rarely capture the full value of their innovations. The same holds true in the public sector: great non-profits do not capture all of the social good they create; rather, it leaks into the full  system over time (i.e., Teach Like a Champion).

I’m a little more skeptical that the government should incentivize the creation of new accountability policies. Whatever you think of Common Core or teacher evaluations, it’s unclear that the federal governments involvement has been a long-term net benefit for the sustainability or effectiveness of these policies.

Yes, Andy’s suggestion is much less heavy-handed. He’s only arguing that the federal government should fund accountability pilots.

But I worry that this is simply reinforcing a bad habit.

My current thinking is that the federal government should focus solely on research, information transparency, supply, and civil rights.

Of these four, supply is currently the most under-appreciated and underfunded, and Andy is right to call for an increase in funding here.

Post election reflections

On this blog, I’m going to keep my post-election reflections focused on education, save for one thought: continued progress in the realization of the American dream is extremely important for our nation and the world as a whole, and I look forward to continuing to play a bit part in this vitally important endeavor. I hope you do too.

On to education.

#1: MA and GA Drive Home that Traditional Public School Support is Boosted by Populism 

In Massachusetts, a populist blue state, the charter school cap was not lifted because unions effectively portrayed this expansion as something that would harm traditional public schools.

In Georgia, a populist red state, a state takeover entity was rejected because opponents effectively portrayed the intervention as something that would hurt local public schools.

In populist politics, communications messages that focus on preserving local, traditional public schools appear to be very effective.

Interestingly enough, it’s not clear to me that these results demonstrate a significant antipathy toward charter schools; rather, they seem to indicate a deep protectionist instinct for traditional public schools.

For charters to be successful, we may need to communicate in a fashion that reduces fears that existing traditional schools will be harmed.

#2: In Cities Where Charters are Normalized, Elections are Producing Pro-Reform Results

In New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Oakland – all cities with 25%+ high-performing charter sectors – reforms either held or expanded majorities.

Generally, reformers prefer top-down quick wins like ballot initiatives; however, we have emerging evidence that, in cities with higher charter market share, elected school boards can tip into modestly sustainable pro-reform majorities.

This is more evidence that market share drives everything.

#3 What Will Ideological but Not Constituent Support Deliver? 

The federal government is now fully controlled by Republicans, a party that is highly ideologically aligned with choice and charters.

However, many Republicans represent states without large charter sectors. As such, there is not uniform constituent demand for more charters.

An open question to me is how much Republicans will use this moment to expand thoughtful, sustainable choice reforms.

#4 The Status of Within District Reform will Rise 

Given the populist rise of traditional school protection, reforms that disrupt within districts – such as technology – will likely see in increase in philanthropic support.

In Sum

There is much to be learned by listening to how people express themselves through voting.

It’s a noisy signal, but in a world of communication bubbles, it’s a signal nonetheless.

Black Oakland Moms vs. Black Lives Matter

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I. Black Lives Matter 

I have immense respect for Black Lives Matter.

In a previous post, I reflected on how the movement has affected me.

But it will come to no surprise to anyone that I disagree with their call for a moratorium on charter schools.

II. Black Mothers in Oakland 

Recently, Black mothers in Oakland published an op-ed where they detailed why they disagree with Black Lives Matter’s call – as well as the NAACP’s call – for a moratorium on charter schools.

You should read their entire piece. It is powerful.

Here is an excerpt:

Like everyone else in our group, Mama recognizes that not all charters are great or even good. We know that while many charters play by rules that require them to accept and educate all children who come to them, some break the rules — and no one should stand for that.

But in this case, she saw a path to interrupt the intergenerational struggle of her family, and like a responsible parent, she took it.

Her choice was a personal one, not a condemnation of district schools. And for our group, exercising this choice requires personal sacrifice, while also dedicating our time working toward solutions that will strengthen the quality of education in community district schools.

We love our communities and know a quality school down the street is the sign of a community’s progress.

As our communities change, so will our choices. But it’s a choice we get to make. And our group is unanimous in asking that no one take that option away while claiming to speak in our name.

III. Segregation in Oakland 

Another piece, via KQED, also recently came out about education in Oakland. This piece detailed how segregated Oakland’s educational system remains, despite the fact that many people in Oakland profess a deep value for diversity.

The headlines says it all:

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IV. The False Liberalism of Charter Moratoriums and Neighborhood Schools  

So what happens when Black Lives Matter calls for a moratorium on charter schools and liberals cling to segregation via neighborhood schools?

You get a system where minority children are forced to attend bad schools because wealthy white people protect their schools via property values and Black Lives Matter abolishes the primary policy vehicle that might allow for better schools to be created in poor neighborhoods.

Black families are squeezed from both sides: they can’t access existing wealthy neighborhood schools and they can’t access new schools in their own neighborhoods.

Or to put it another way: the seemingly innocent desire to maintain neighborhood schools and protect school districts ends up having devastating consequences for black children.

V. Black Diversity

The conflict between Black moms in Oakland and Black Lives Matter should make it clear that black thought is not monolithic.

Black people disagree about a lot of things. Conversations with my African-American father made this clear to me at a young age. He often disagreed with various black thought leaders and would describe various tensions across black thinkers.

Often (as with white people), black disagreements occur along class lines.

Upper class, middle class, and lower class black people disagree about a lot of things – and classicism is rampant in the black community just as it is in most racial communities (my mother is Indian and the caste system epitomizes awful within race classism).

So I was not surprised at all that Black moms in Oakland disagreed with Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.

VI. Black Children Matter

Every child deserves an amazing school.

Given our nation’s history, black children deserve especially amazing schools.

We should support policies that give black children access to amazing schools (policies such as unified enrollment), and we should also support policies that allow educators to open amazing schools for black children (policies such as charter schools).

Supporting these policies will require some sacrifice. White people will have to give up their chokehold on exclusive neighborhood schools. And black people will have to pressure an institution (school districts) that have been a source of historical pride and employment.

None of this is easy, but it’s all worth fighting for.

 

The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth

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Going from 16K to 18K in Annual Wages 

Last week, I did a post on Fryer and Debbie’s excellent new study on the Texas charter sector.

I emailed the authors about my hypothesis that the growth of high-quality charters – even if they aren’t that much better than average traditional schools – could still be of great value if these new charters displaced chronically failing schools.

Roland was kind enough to respond but pushed that even if my hypothesis is true, the story still might be a depressing one.

His point: the numbers from his study indicate that even if we replaced all these failing schools with high-performing charters, we’re still only talking about ~1-2K in extra earnings per year for these students.

Given that many of these students end up lower income brackets, this might mean going from 16K to 18K a year in annual salary. Hardly game changing in terms of life outcomes – and surely not a ticket to the middle class.

Confronting this Potential Reality

When a study tells you what you don’t want to hear, the first reaction is often to not deal with it (in some ways I did this in my previous post).

So everyone in education reform needs to deal with this potential reality: there is some possibility that the best that education reform has to offer can only, on average, move a student from 16K to 18K a year.

Of course, this is only one study of one state. We don’t yet know if these numbers will hold under different contexts, methodologies, or timeframes.

But, at the very least, your belief that a great school can radically increase wages should be a little lower after reading this study.

Other Considerations

I’m still mulling this over, but in conversations with Roland and folks I work with, certain ideas bubbled up:

The data doesn’t capture recent improvements: A lot of the best charters have only really started focusing on college and career over the past 5 years or so. As such, the students who received the full suite of redesigned high schools, counseling, and career support aren’t represented in this study. To the extent you believe the best charters are problem solving machines, you might believe this to be true.

The work is generational: Perhaps reformed schools can only, on average, push students who would have been in deep poverty to achieve average poverty / lower middle-class status. And perhaps their children, who will grow up in better educated environments, will the be ones  to more fully make it into the middle class. But this story could be unwound through raised expectations: if we told kids they were going to make it to the middle class, and they don’t, how will they react?

Colleges are the bottleneck: Perhaps these real gains in learning are being wasted by ineffective two year and four year colleges – and that without higher education reform we won’t be able to translate K-12 gains into wage increases.

Society is tough: Just because you’re better educated doesn’t mean you can overcome racism, lack of social capital, and an over-reliance on signaling.

More interventions are needed: Great schools can’t solve everything; interventions that work on family poverty, health, and parenting are needed for schools to really move kids as far as they need to be moved.

The schools aren’t really that good: A bunch of teaching to the test just jacks up crystallized knowledge but doesn’t really give kids the human capital qualities they need to succeed in the workforce.

What Do you Do in the Face of Ambiguity?

Leaders need to make hard decisions in the face of incomplete data.

Often times, this means relying on some combination of probabilistic thinking, intuition, ideology, and philosophy.

But, at some point, you need to walk away if the data is telling you what you’re doing is not working.

I don’t think one study is enough to walk away from the promise of urban charter schools, especially since they’ve achieved so much on less penultimate markers.  I think there’s a lot more experimentation and research that needs to be done to help us understand if we can translate academic gains into wage growth.

But it’s worth thinking about when you would walk away.

Because if there is no point at which you’d walk away, then what do you really stand for?

An Alternative Interpretation of the Fryer / Dobbie Texas Charter School Study

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Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie just published an excellent study on the Texas charter school sector.

But it’s unclear to me that they captured a very important implication of their research.

I. Study Overview

The study found that charter schools in Texas, on average, have no impact on test scores and a slightly negative impact on earnings.

More interestingly, the study found that No Excuses charter schools increase test scores but only have a small and statistically insignificant impact on earnings.

Their paper ends with this cautionary statement:

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II. Walking Through Low Effect Size and High Effect Size Schools 

The famous Anna Karena quote goes something like this: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I think the opposite is true of schools.

When I visit low effect size schools, I am often saddened by the level of dysfunction. Students walk the halls aimlessly, teachers seem woefully unprepared for working in a low-income environment, and the principal generally spends her day putting out fires.

When I visit high effect size schools, I’m often struck by how different they are. While most hit the basics of a calm culture and thoughtful instruction, they vary greatly in atmosphere, curriculum, and staffing models – as well as the overall student experience. A Summit school is very different than a Collegiate Academies school, despite both achieving high effects. Even No Excuses schools can feel fairly different from each other, though they do tend to gravitate around some core practices (that Fryer has helped illuminate).

I also think I would struggle mightily in a blind walk through of .1 and .2 effect size schools; it is highly unlikely I would be able to tell you which school has which effect.

So while it’s easy to identify schools that are a total mess, it’s a little difficult to tease out what’s going well in non-dysfuctional schools, as well as to distinguish between high-performing and very-high-performing schools.

III. Bad Schools Have Bad Effects on Earnings, Good Schools Have Neutral Effects on Earnings

I found this to be the most interesting chart in the study:

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What you see here is that going from (-.2) to (0) effect really matters for earnings. This is indicated by the rising slope in the bottom left quadrant.

Interestingly enough, once you hit (0) effect, going to (.2) effect has little effect on earnings. This is indicated by the relatively flat slope in the the bottom right quadrant.

In short, getting rid of bad schools could have a major effect on the earnings of graduates in an education system (assuming our economy is not a zero sum signaling game).

In a sense, this fits my experiences in spending time in schools. It’s very easy to see how a totally dysfunctional environment could negatively impact students, whereas it’s a little more difficult to tease out the additional impact on students once the basics are in place.

IV. Portfolio Management: What Happens When Charter Schools Grow?

In a world where states and districts are managing their portfolio of schools, the growth of functional schools will be accompanied by the phasing out of dysfunctional schools.

In the best possible world, the growth of new effective charter schools will be accompanied with a reduction in under-performing traditional and charter schools.

Overtime, a system can potentially rid itself of failing schools.

This is what happened in New Orleans.

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While the above analysis is more weighted toward absolute scores (rather than effect sizes), my hunch is that the story would stand with effect sizes as well (I have not run this data yet).

I think much of New Orleans’ gains were driven by the phasing out of failing schools.

It is much less clear to me that schools in New Orleans, to date, have figured out to crack the code of creating schools that are radically superior to your average functioning traditional school.

Hopefully they will.

V. No Excuses Charter Schools May Allow Us to Eliminate Failing Schools and Raise the Aggregate Earnings of Low-Income Students in the United States 

So another way to interpret this study is that the growth of No Excuses charter schools could be the key to eliminating failing schools and raising wages of low-income students who would have otherwise have attended failing schools.

Two things would have to hold true for this to be the case: (1) government action or family choice lead to the phasing out of failing schools and (2) No Excuses schools can maintain their neutral effects on earnings even if they enroll the most challenging students from the phased out failing schools.

In other words, for now, the importance of charter school growth might be much more directly tied to eliminating failing schools rather than vastly outperforming functional district schools.

If this is right, No Excuses charter schools might still very well be the most important education reform of the past quarter century.

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?

History

First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.

Who is the Villain? Why?

I. The Villains

Over the past few weeks, three major stories came out that either directly or indirectly covered charter schools. Their headlines are below.

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In many newspaper stories, there is a good guy and a bad guy.

For me, the commonality of these very different stories was that, in each of them, charter schools were either explicitly or implicitly cast as the villains.

II. Detroit 

In Kate Zernike’s story, the headline clearly points to a “sea of charter schools” as the reason Detroit’s students aren’t performing well.

The story opens with an anecdote about a child being failed by a charter school.

The growth of charters is called “competition and chaos.”

The phrases pile up on top of each other: …”unchecked growth”…”glut of schools”… “cannabilized”…”unfettered growth”…

And the most literary: “pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative.”

As many have noted, the article failed to mention a CREDO study that found Detroit charters to be outperforming traditional schools.

Moreover, the article failed to detail that it was the traditional school system that has needed bail out after bail out – and that has been the source of much corruption.

Ultimately, charter schools grew to serve half of the students in Detroit; they outperformed the traditional sector; and, unlike the traditional sector, they did not require hundreds of millions of dollars in bailout funds.

Reasonable people can debate whether better than the existing system is good enough.

But to frame charters as the villains of Detroit public education is quite odd, especially when the traditional system is performing academically and financially worse.

III. Rocketship

Anya Kamenetz’s story covered Rocketship Schools, which serves low-income families across the country.

Anya paints a rather grim picture: “infections due to denial of restroom visits,” “hours of enforced silence,” “a culture of producing test scores at all costs.”

Rather amazingly, she ends the piece with a two paragraph quotation from the head of a local union:

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It is clear: Rocketship is the villain.

Yet, no family is forced to go to a Rocketship school. Rather, they all attend because they have made a proactive decision to pull their child out of an existing traditional school, which they presumably felt was not providing a great education.

So a school gets good academic scores, creates an environment that tens of thousands families want their children to be a part of, opens it doors to any family that wishes to attend – and it is the villain. Whereas the failing school system – where according to the union leaders “parents are happy” – is not the villain.

The world feels upside down.

III. Brooklyn

Kate Taylor’s piece is less directly about charter schools; rather, it is about a failing district school that is making improvements but is being forced to co-locate with an expanding Success Academy school.

On its face, the district is the villain of this story, as Kate frames the story as one of the district promising the building to a charter without giving the failing school a chance to improve.

Yet, the language of the story often hints at Success Academy being a secondary villain.

Kate writes:

“Now, in a twist, even as it grows, J.H.S. 50 will have to give up five classrooms next year, because the Success Academy school is expanding to fifth grade… J.H.S. 50 will probably have to turn its dance studio into a regular classroom. It is likely to lose a new computer lab Mr. Reynoso financed. And several rooms will need to do double duty, as both a classroom and a music room, for instance.”

A school who has failed students for years is the good guy; the school that has incredibly high demand and is providing a great education is the one who is taking something away from children.

IV. The Failing School System is Never the Villain

The point of this post is not to say the Detroit charter sector, Rocketship, and Success Academies are the heroes. None of them are perfect.

Rather, what I’m struggling with is why these entities are painted as the villains.

In a perfect world, I’d rather that there be no villains, as I don’t blame current educators for the existing system’s failures.

But if reporters need to find a villain, why do they so often go after the educators who work in charter schools that are trying to make things better – and that often are?

Why do they  go out of their way to find a villain other than the very schools that are currently failing children?

V. Why?

I’m not sure, but a few guesses below.

  1. I think the education reform community has at times over-promised on what charter schools can do, and this opens charters up to criticism when they don’t meet these promises, even if they are performing better than the traditional system.
  2. Emotionally, I think reporters (rightfully) empathize with plight of students stuck in failing schools – and this sometimes bleeds over to empathy with the adults working in the failing schools – adults who might lose their jobs if charters expand.
  3. While charter schools are generally educator led non-profit organizations, many billionaires support charter schools, and I think this support creates a suspicion that charter will increase educational inequality, akin to how the economy has seen a spike in inequality over the past two decades.

These are just guesses.

VI. A Story

Recently, I was talking to a charter school parent.

He told me that after he visited his neighborhood school he knew that he could not send his daughter to that school. He said at that point he had three options: he could get her into a charter school; he could find a second and third job to afford a private school; or he could move his family.

But he was not going to send her to a failing school.

 

Who is the villain?

Who is the hero?