Category Archives: Education Reform

What if everything you believe about education is wrong?

New Orleans achieved dramatic student achievement results while, at the same time, upending much of the conventional wisdom of education policy.

The Education Research Alliance has done a bunch of great research that should humble pundits and educators alike; some highlights below:

Popular Belief #1: Experienced Teachers are Better

New Orleans increased student achievement while the % of teachers with less than 5 years of experience skyrocketed, and the % of teachers with over 20 years of experience plummeted.


Popular Belief #2: Teacher Credentialing Matters

New Orleans increased student achievement while the % of teachers with no, temporary or, the lowest level of certification (C/1) skyrocketed, and the % of teachers with advanced credentials (A/3 and B/2) plummeted.


Popular Belief #3: Teacher Turnover is Bad

New Orleans increased student achievement while teacher turnover significantly increased.


Popular Belief #4: Education Choice Markets Will Fail Due to Information Problems

A continuing criticism of choice based reforms is that parents will make poor decisions due to being incapable of understanding school quality. In New Orleans, student achievement (SPS score) was one of only a few factors that strongly increased the likelihood a family would choose a school in the open enrollment system.


Popular Belief #5: School Choice Only Benefits a Select Group of Choosers

A continuing criticism of choice based reforms is that only the active choosers will get into the schools they want. In New Orleans, 75% of families were matched with one of their top three choices.


Popular Belief #6: School Choice Increases Student Mobility

Numerous commentators have argued that school choice will cause significant increases in student mobility. New Orleans moved to an all choice system and student mobility decreased.


Popular Belief #7: School Closure Harms the Children Attending the Closed School

In New Orleans, students attending schools that were closed (intervention schools) saw their student achievement increase significantly in the subsequent years.


Popular Belief #8: Money is Best Spent “in the Classroom”

In comparison to other districts, New Orleans increased student achievement while spending more on administrative costs and less on instructional costs.


To be clear, I’m not saying that any of the above caused the student achievement gains in New Orleans.

Rather, I’m only pointing out that New Orleans saw some of the most dramatic student achievement gains in our country’s recent history while doing a bunch of things that you’re not supposed to do.

I’m sure we’ll learn more over the coming decade.

Draft Text for a State Constitutional Amendment to End the Education Wars


If the United States could adopt the educational regime of any country in the world, I would not choose Finland or Singapore or South Korea.

I would choose the Netherlands.


In 1917, the Dutch had a national education battle about what types of schools deserve public funding.

This battle, as well as other policy battles, was settled with a constitutional amendment which was passed during what is known as the “Pacification of 1917.”

The constitutional amendment established a fundamental right to open a school and receive pubic funding.

What a remarkable way to end the education wars!


Since the Pacification of 1917, the Dutch government has built a set of regulations to manage the implementation of the constitutional amendment.

Depending on where you are on the freedom axis, you might find these regulations reasonable or tyrannic.

I find some of them to be reasonable (national academic objectives) and some not (negotiating teacher salaries at the national level).

The Dutch have blazed one trail on how to regulate the freedom to open publicly funded schools; surely, other experiments would teach us much.


So here is proposed text for a state constitutional amendment in the United States of America:

“The right to found a school or enroll in a school shall not be abridged by government or any entity receiving government funding. All schools that meet basic education standards shall receive public funding based on a per-pupil allotment that is weighted based on student need and uniform across schools.”


I don’t think every state in the United States of America should pass this amendment.

But I think it would be great if a few states did.

I imagine each state would blaze its own path in determining how to manage a system where citizens had a constitutional right to open schools and where families had a constitutional right to choose amongst these schools.

I also think this approach – passing a constitutional amendment – has much more moral and legal force than pushing for ad hoc funding programs, such as education savings accounts or limited vouchers.

A right is a fundamental, a program is not.


Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, the Dutch rank number 10 in the world in student achievement based on the 2012 PISA results (they’re actually #7 if you throw out Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, which last time I checked aren’t countries).

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NOLA Return Bill: Is it Good?

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So far, many articles focused on the new bill have concerned themselves with raising or lowering the status of specific players – but what about the bill itself?


Overall, I think the bill is strong on equity, democracy, and protecting existing academic gains.

I worry about what the future holds for maintaining a sense of urgency on increased academic performance and innovation. A cementing of structure will likely favor the incumbents.

But a law can only do so much.

A good framework has been set. The return bill enshrines much of what has led to NOLA’s gains in equity and performance.

In a world of toxic national politics, it’s heartening to see complex and important legislation being crafted and adopted by a politically and racially diverse coalition.


More reflections:

  1. This is nationally important: we now have a law on the books that clearly defines how a portfolio district can be implemented. A debt is owed to Paul Hill.
  2. The bill is strong on equity: the weighted student funding, enrollment, and expulsion provisions are extremely important. As I’ve written before, I think NOLA’s greatest innovations have been in equity.
  3. The bill is sticky: with fairly broad support, the bill codifies 10 year’s worth of work – this should make it stick. Moreover, the marketshare limits and charter autonomy provisions should prevent roll backs to a one best system.
  4. The return is really a rebalancing: the school board now has much more power, and the state has much less – however, the state still has the RSD as a check on the local school inaction on underperforming schools. Democratic power exists at both local and state levels, and this is a readjusting rather than a jettisoning of state power.
  5. Who will be the leaders? Many of the local leaders in education reform have been unelected: non-profits and civic organizations have held a lot of power. This will shift as the local school board gains more power, but with elections happening this fall, we don’t yet know who this slate of leaders will be. The first wave of local leaders post-return will set a vision and culture for what local control means…
  6. Incumbents are protected – but what about future schools? The bill outlines clear powers for the school board, superintendent, and existing schools, but less ink was spilled on ensuring there is a continually pipeline of new (and hopefully innovative) schools. I think this amongst the biggest risks in NOLA over next decade: will the incumbents of the system (government, charter schools, non-profits, etc). utilize their hard and soft power to block new entrants?


Lastly, here are what I think to be the most important parts of the bill – with excerpts of the exact language for those who want to understand the mechanics.

Equity Provisions 

Student based budgeting w/ weights for specific needs: “…establishes a process to determine the district-level funding allocation to be effective beginning July 1, 2017, and as revised in subsequent years as appropriate, based upon student characteristics or needs…”

Unified enrollment and expulsion: “…shall require all charter schools under the board’s jurisdiction to participate in the parish-wide enrollment system and student expulsion process, according to policies established by the board…”

Allows for some (but not exclusive) neighborhood preference: “May provide a lottery preference for enrollment at elementary middle schools under the board’s jurisdiction for students residing with defined geographic zones as one of the factors to determine student assignment, according to policies adopted by the board. Such preference shall be applied to not more than one-half of the seats available in each grade level…”

Promotes integration: “…so that such schools shall be exempted from the minimum enrollment percentages…”

Performance Provisions

Prevents monopoly / too big too fail: “shall adopt a policy establishing a process which allows the local superintendent to limit the percentage of system enrollment that any single operator of schools or charter governing authority may serve to ensure that a diverse system of schools led by multiple high quality operators exists at all times.”

Empowers superintendent as portfolio manager: “superintendent shall present recommendations to the local school board regarding the approval, extension, renewal, or revocation of the charter for any charter school under the board’s jurisdiction…Unless vetoed by a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the board, the local superintendent may implement any such recommendation submitted to the board.”

Protects charter autonomy: “the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction.”

Promotes test security: “each charter school under the local school board’s jurisdiction shall provide for independent test monitoring from third-party entity approved by the school board for the testing period immediately preceding the board’s consideration of renewal of the charter school’s contract.”

Love It or Hate It, Common Core is Giving Us Interesting Data About Black Student Achievement

Roughly ten states now use PARCC assessments. For the first time, this allows us to get a comparative standards based snapshot of how students are doing across numerous geographies.

Two caveats: because this is the first year of testing, we don’t yet have growth data; additionally, there  appear to be differences in results between the on-line and paper versions of the test, which seem to be more pronounced in later grades.

With these caveats in mind, early Common Core results (as measured by PARCC) indicate that Black students in Massachusetts and *New Orleans* are achieving at higher levels than many Black students across the country, including those in Washington D.C.

Over time, as growth data is included and test administration is cleaned up, we should have an even better data set with which to make stronger comparisons.


I created the table below to compare New Orleans African-American students and economically disadvantages students against the same subgroups in other places across all subjects in grades 3-8, with the hope that looking across grades and varied proficiency differentials might illuminate trends.

It should be noted that New Orleans students used paper and pencil versions, so in later grades especially this might result in inflated NOLA results. But as the chart details, New Orleans did well in 3rd and 4th grade as well (where other states saw less scoring differentials based on test type).

Green cells indicate where New Orleans students outperformed their peers; red cells indicate where they underperformed their peers.The numbers in the cell are +/- differential rates for how other geographies scored compared to NOLA proficiency.

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You can download the spreadsheet here: nola-parcc-data-comparison

Overall, there is a lot of green.


Hopefully, over time, this type of data will tell us more about what’s working and what’s not – as well as what policy makers and educators might do to increase educational opportunity for all students.

So far, it’s exciting to see New Orleans students doing comparatively well.


Last thought: what do you think is the ratio of articles on coverage of the opt-out movement vs. coverage of what we might actually learn from the PARCC achievement results?


Having the Conversation Beforehand

south carolina panel

I spent the past two days in Charleston, South  Carolina.

My father, who recently passed away, is from South Carolina, so the visit had deep meaning for me.

More importantly, the conversation going in Charleston is steeped in meaning because of the city’s historical racial injustices and the recent horrific shooting at a house of worship.


In education reform, a common critique is that reform is done to a community.

And, to be honest, when I visit cities I often give a talk or two, meet some political and philanthropic leaders, and then fly out.

This is probably the wrong thing to do.

On this trip, our hosts had us spend two hours with teachers and families at a public meeting before we opened our mouths.

I got to hear what some educators and families were going through; what their struggles were; what their hopes were.


The picture above is from a panel that took place at a church the next day.

Before the panel began, an African-American high school student gave an overview of the data of the achievement of his peers.

It was not a white business leader telling a community that the schools weren’t good enough.

It was a black male teenager.


A quick look at the picture above will make it clear that the panel had a diversity of views.

I’m associated with the charter school movement.

The leader sitting to my right, Kaya Henderson, is rightfully considered to be one of the best district leaders in the country.

We’re flanked by Dana Peterson and Chris Barbic, each of whom having been shaped by their own experiences: Dana as a labor organizer and Chris as a charter school founder and superintendent.

It’s rare that you get a former labor organizer, a sitting superintendent, a charter proponent, and a former charter and district CEO sitting on one panel.

All of the panelists, in my opinion, did a great job of being honest about what worked has worked in their cities, being open about what has failed, and clearly stating that the Charleston community has to blaze its own – and inevitably unique – path.


In many cities, panels like this focus on what has happened. Local and national leaders opine on recent reforms efforts.

In Charleston, they are having the conversation beforehand.

Their community has yet to put forth a vision of what the coming years will hold for their schools.

But whatever path they choose, it will have been formed through robust and open public debate.

They are having the conversation beforehand.

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


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


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

He did not mention New Orleans in his piece.


I’ve written a lot on Newark.

You can read the shortest and most direct version here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

There is some truth in this.


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

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


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

You can short the people who are wrong.

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

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

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

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

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



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

I’m not sure that it did.

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

In short, the goal posts were moved.

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


Of course, I might be wrong about my beliefs.

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

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

The Parable of the 3 Blacksmiths


During a time long ago and in a kingdom far away, there once lived three blacksmiths.

All three blacksmiths worked under their lordship, Sir Tuda.

Sir Tuda was a benevolent lord. He wanted his blacksmiths to be as productive as possible, both so they and the kingdom could prosper.

Sir Tuda knew the old adage  – “a kingdom is never better than its blacksmiths” – and he took it to heart.

Unfortunately, Sir Tuda was not schooled in public policy, so instead of issuing a proclamation on his own, he wisely approached his top blacksmiths and asked them how to increase production.

“Tell me what you need from me, and I will make it so,” he told the blacksmiths.

The first blacksmith said: “I need autonomy! If you give me the freedom to run my shop the way I desire, I will increase production!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

The second blacksmith, wanting to outdo the first blacksmith, said: “I need autonomy too! But I also need a board of directors to guide me!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

The third blacksmith was actually not yet a full blacksmith. She was only an apprentice and she would not have even been invited to this meeting but for the fact that her boss was sick with the plague.

She like both of the requests that had already been mentioned, but what she really wanted was to start her own blacksmith shop.

So she said: “I want autonomy! And I want a board of directors to guide me! But I also want a charter to open up my own blacksmith shop!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

Five years then passed and much changed, including the death of Sir Tuda, who was killed by the Kingdom of the Strategic Inconsistency, which had a long history of invading kingdoms, even those run by great lords.

So what happened to our blacksmiths?

The first blacksmith, who had asked for autonomy, did see a spike in production for two years, but when Sir Tuda died, the new Lord took away the autonomy and production decreased back to its previous levels.

The second blacksmith, who asked for autonomy and a board of directors, increased his production a modest but statistically significant amount; moreover, his board of directors protected him from the new Lord, so he was able to maintain his production increase.

The third blacksmith, who asked to be able to start a new blacksmith shop, gain autonomy, and be overseen by a board of directors, saw her production skyrocket. The young blacksmith had been experimenting with a new innovative method of blacksmithing, and it was only once she got her  own shop that he was able to implement his new method. And, like the second blacksmith, her board of directors protected her from the new Lord’s top-down blacksmith policies.

Lastly, and oddly enough, the new Lord kept on trying to prevent the third blacksmith from expanding even though her shop was so successful. The new Lord kept on muttering, “you’re stealing from me” even though all the blacksmith shops equally benefited the health of the kingdom.

But, by organizing and mobilizing her consumers, the third blacksmith was able eventually open up ten more highly effective blacksmith shops, which made the kingdom the number one in production in the world, even surpassing the Kingdom of Finland (I swear it’s true).

Wise readers will see the moral of this story.

Blacksmith autonomy is useful but fleeting.

Blacksmith autonomy coupled with non-profit governance will lead to modest but important improvements.

Blacksmith autonomy coupled with non-profit governance coupled with entrepreneurship can transform the kingdom.

Education Strategy in Under 135 Words

Here is what most civic leaders get wrong in education strategy:

1.Over reliance on superintendent, under reliance on non-profit sector.

2.Too much energy spent on union contract, not enough energy spent on teacher pipelines.

3.Too much sweat spent on school improvement, not enough sweat spent on school creation.

4.Too much time spent on public meetings, not enough time spent empowering, organizing, and mobilizing families.

In Sum: 

Weak Strategy: Invest in getting a “rockstar” superintendent to renegotiate the union contract and provide instructional supports to schools, and then hold public meetings to tell people what you’re going to do.

Better Strategy: Invest in non-profit leaders to start and scale schools, and couple this work with an enormous effort to develop and grow educator pipelines, all the while empowering families to be able to demand the schools they want and deserve.

On the problem of not being able to short sell non-profits

Robert Shiller had an interesting article in the NYT on why housing markets are not always efficient.

More pertinent to this blog:

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I wish it were possible to short non-profits. I don’t really know how it would work / it’s probably not possible, but not having this type of function harms people in need.

Over time, short selling would reallocate resources to organizations that could provide much better outcomes if those in need.

Everywhere I look, I see non-profit “bubbles,” especially in education reform.

But funders have weak information, or misaligned incentives with those they are serving, so money keeps on flowing.

Short selling, or some version of it, could prevent money from going to organizations that have little to no chance of achieving their aims, as well meaning as they might be. And it could drive funding to organizations that could do amazing things.

If I was going to short non-profit education activity, it would be in these areas:

1) Efforts that mistake coordination for strategy.

2) Efforts that do not affect, or do not tightly align themselves, with what happens between 8AM-3PM.

Of course, the short selling analogy is flawed. The non-profit sector is a different animal than the for-profit sector.I get it.

The main point here is that it is important for there to be a public, meaningful signal against efforts that are likely to fail.

Without that, we all risk walking aimlessly in the dark.