Category Archives: Charter schools

Education philanthropists should not take advice from Larry Summers

Screen Shot 2017-09-20 at 7.28.42 PM.png

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:

 

Screen Shot 2017-08-23 at 12.23.34 PM.png

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.

___

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.

___

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.

___

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.

___

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:

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 7.45.24 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-12 at 7.45.12 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 8.07.41 PM

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.