Category Archives: Charter schools

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.

When is advocating for a diversity of school models immoral?

In many cities I work in, education reform leaders bang the drum of needing more diversity in school models in their cities.

“Choice isn’t choice if all the schools are the same,” is a common statement.

I get where these folks are coming from, and I hope the breadth of effective school models continues to grow. There are still too many kids who don’t thrive in the schools that exits today, and I’m glad there are entrepreneurs who are developing new models, as well as investors and intermediaries that are supporting them.

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At the same time, in many cities, two conditions are present:

1) Tens of thousands of children are attending failing schools.

2) Effective high expectations / high support (formerly called No Excuses) schools have waiting lists.

In other words, families are stuck in failing schools and existing high-performing schools could expand to help them.

Of course, just because these conditions exist doesn’t mean that it’s immoral to invest in new school model design.

But the “choice isn’t choice” refrain feels pretty privileged.

When your child is in a decent school, diversity of school model might be exactly what you’re looking for in a better option.

But when your child is in a failing school, you’re often just looking for an effective school who will nurture your child’s academic and personal growth – and if that school already exists in your city, you’re simply trying to get in.

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To put a rough marker on there, if the aforementioned conditions exist in your city (many students in failing schools, many good schools with waiting lists), I think you should be devoting a good ~80% of your philanthropic funds on getting kids out of failing schools and expanding schools that are working.

If you’re allocations are reversed, and you’re spending the majority of your resources on new school models, I think you’re actions are not in the best interests of the children who are being harmed in failing schools.

If I had to argue against myself, I’d say that increasing the diversity of school models will increase the diversity of parents sending their children to public charter schools, which will strengthen the pro-charter political coalition. I’d also argue that new entrepreneurs and new models might pressure the incumbents to continue to adapt. Moreover, I’d argue that a real new school model breakthrough might prove to be more scalable than existing models, so investing in new models might help more kids sooner than scaling existing models. Lastly, I’d argue that all children, not just children in failing schools, deserve great school options.

I do agree with these counterarguments, but, for me, the near term weight of the moral good still sits with helping the children who are currently stuck in failing schools.

Hence my 80% / 20% calculation.

So yes, let’s keep on trying to develop new school models, but let’s make sure to check the privilege of making this argument with too much force, especially in cities where existing good schools have room to serve more kids who are stuck in terrible situations.

The Hondas are coming

CREDO just released its new research report on the performance of charter school management organizations (CMOs).

I continue to be grateful for CREDO’s efforts. In for-profit industries, the market creates demand for this type of sector specific research. In the social sector, we tend to be more reliant on academics and philanthropists; thankfully, CREDO continues to drum up the necessary support to produce this type of analysis.

Positive, Modest  Effect Sizes Everywhere You Look

CMOs are delivering solid effects with most, but not all students. It is easy to brush off these effects as “smallish.” But one could say the same of many groundbreaking innovations that make the world a better place.

We should be optimistic about the fact that CMOs tend to deliver Honda-like performance improvements: they are better than existing model, and their value increases the longer you use them.

Overall, CMOs are delivering +.03 SD effects over three years in both reading and math. These gains are driven by the fact that students benefit from CMOs the longer they stay in them:

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Yes, some individual CMOs operate at the frontier of innovation: they develop new school models or operate with world class execution. And while we should praise these efforts, we should not ignore the more modest improvements that are being delivered at scale by the CMO sector itself.

Give or take, CMOs serve around a million children, and many of these children are getting a better education than they would receive otherwise.

For Disadvantaged Students, the Benefits of CMOs are Twice as Good 

As with Hondas, the benefits of CMOs generally accrue to those who need them the most.

The charts below are a little tricky to interpret, but they show that African-American students see roughly double the positive effects (+.06 SD instead of +.03SD) when they enroll in CMOs (the difference between the two bars equals the marginal CMO effect).

For minority students in poverty, the effects were even bigger, equating to around a .1 effect for Hispanic and African-American students in poverty.

The only disadvantaged population to see modest negative effects was students with special needs. The sector needs to get better here.

A Good Investor to Grow the Sector

Many philanthropists do not give directly to CMOs. Instead, they give to the Charter School Growth Fund, whose management team and board then make decisions on which individual CMOs to invest in.

Over the decade, the portfolio of the Charter School Growth Fund has significantly increased in size. To date, they have also managed to maintain quality.

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Schools in the Charter School Growth Fund portfolio are delivering much greater effects than the CMO community as a whole.

Almost Nothing Works, So Nurture the Efforts that Do

Very few education interventions achieve positive results.

CMOs achieve positive results. And these results continue to hold as they scale.

Under less than ideal political conditions, and sometimes with little public support, these organizations are doing a lot for disadvantaged youth.

If we continue to support their development, our nation could be much better off.

Roland Fryer and the Root Cause of Good Management

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Roland Fryer is one of the top education researchers in the country. His research is always thought provoking and whenever we talk I learn something.

If there’s one area Roland and I may disagree on, it’s the potential for school districts to sustainably adopt the best practices of charter schools (which Roland has been instrumental in helping us understand).

This issue is of course wrapped up in the bigger question: will the greatest value of charter schools be the birth of  innovative practices or the scaling of a better governance model?

I. Roland’s New Research: MGMT Matters

Roland just came out with a fascinating study on the importance of effective principal management.

The experimental research project was set in Houston and provided principal management training (much of it borrowed from Paul Bambrick-Santoyo of Uncommon Schools) to a treatment group of school district principals.

The researchers found:

Overall, the estimates suggest that management training was effective in year one – increasing efficiency approximately 7% — but produced precisely estimated zeros in year two. Pooling the two years produces marginally significant results that fall on the other side of significance with more conservative standard errors. Management training tends to be more effective with more flexible, stable and higher human capital principals and teachers. The most robust partitions of the data are whether a principal was employed for both years of the experiment and fidelity of implementation of the management training.

In sum: they found impressive effects with talented principals who stayed in the job for two years but no effects overall due to principal turnover and too many low human capital leaders.

II. Why Did Fryer Need to Conduct an Experiment in Houston?

Data driven instruction and teacher feedback, which were key to the intervention, are not new ideas. Bambrick wrote Leveraged Leadership in 2012. And he surely wasn’t the first to implement these management practices.

So why did Fryer need to construct an experiment to apply these sound management practices in Houston?

Why wasn’t the Houston school district applying these techniques already?

As it happens, some other researchers (Nicholas Bloom, Erik Brynjolfsson, Lucia Foster, Ron Jarmin, Megha Patnaik, Itay Saporta Eksten, John Van Reenen) just published a paper on this very subject – with the aim of trying to understand the root causes of good management practices.

III. What are the Root Causes of Good Management Practices?

It’s hard to do a controlled experiment on management practices in the private sector, so caution is warranted in interpreting the results.

The authors used survey data and business results to determine whether sound management practices are correlated to increased business success (they are), and then tried to figure out what business conditions led to better management practices.

While the methodology is inherently tricky, it did reaffirm my priors.

The researchers found:

What could cause these huge differences in management practices across establishments? We found several major factors. First, establishments in more competitive industries (measured by the Lerner index) adopt more structured management practices. Second, those in more pro-business states (proxied by states with ‘right to work’ laws, as in Holmes 1998) tend to use more structured management practices. Third, establishments with more college graduates and firms located near universities (building on the work of Moretti 2004 for identification) tended to adopt more structured management practices. Fourth, being located near a successful large new entrant (using the ‘million dollar plants’ identification strategy of Greenstone et al. 2010) is correlated with more structured management practices, likely because it allows local companies to learn about practices from these large, successful firms.

All these factors matter, but they explained less than half of the variation in management techniques, which means that many other factors matter, too. One hypothesis is that individual managers and CEOs themselves are another critical driver (e.g. Bandiera et al. 2017).

To summarize: good management practices were most often found in (1) competitive industries (2) with less restrictive labor laws (3) located near universities and (4) successful new start-ups.

I know a city educational system that meets all these conditions.

It happened to achieve some of the best student achievement results the country has recently seen.

IV. Yes And

It if it ever occurs, it will take a few decades to scale the charter sector serve the vast majority of low-income students.

For this reason, I appreciate Roland’s efforts to see if charter practices can increase achievement in districts. While I don’t think this is the long-term game, there might be short-term benefits to be had.

But if you want these achievement gains to be sustained, you have to address root causes.

And the root cause of good management is not really about intellectually understanding good management practices.

Rather, it’s about creating the enabling conditions to sustainably execute these management practices.

I believe that non-profit governance will prove to be one of the most important enabling conditions in the public education sector.

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.