Category Archives: Education Reform

Threading Together a Few Tweets to Predict the Future of Education

The future is unknowable, of course. But it’s worth understanding the data fundamentals of any situation if one wants to make things better.

So here’s some fundamentals that all came across my twitter over a course of a few hours:

Tweet on the Cost of Education Vs. Other Services and Goods 

Tweet on the Difference Between Schooling and Learning

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Tweet on Private Schools in India 

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Tweet on the Cost of Learning

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What to Make of It?

Well, first of all, this exercise was premised on only using data from a few tweets that crossed my feed over a few hours. So take it for what it’s worth

But, I was struck by the narrative that these tweets presented:

  • Publicly subsidized education is skyrocketing in price in the United States.
  • Actual years of schooling is often not a good indicator of learning.
  • In India private schools deliver the same outcomes as public schools but for a third of the price.
  • The internet (~$40 a month) provides unlimited content for basically free.

This story is one of the system collapsing on itself. High cost providers can’t compete forever with lower priced or free alternatives that provide the same quality of service.

Of course, missing from my tweet stream was this:

  • A tweet on status quo bias.
  • A tweet on regulatory capture.
  • A tweet on status / signaling.
  • A tweet on the conscientious needed to undertake self-directed learning.

What does the future hold?

Time will tell.

The only that is for sure: twitter continues to deliver more information to me than any content platform I’ve ever encountered. All of the above data from a few hours on twitter!

The Next Phase of School Reform in ______________

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Richard Whitmire just had a piece in the WAPO: The next phase of D.C. education reform.

Richard’s main point is that D.C. needs the leadership and regulatory structure to reverse the chronic underperformance of many of the district’s most struggling schools.

Richard is correct.

My only objection is that this piece could have been written about just about any major urban school district in the country.

In so many cities, two things are occurring:

(1) Districts are sitting on failing schools that continue to screw over poor children.

(2) Charters are not serving every child.

To me, there is a clear solution: institute unified accountability and unified enrollment.

Judge all schools the same. All schools that continually fail should have their governance transferred to a new operator.

Give families equal access to all schools. Create fair processes for front end enrollment and back end expulsions.

And ensure that there is regulator that can impartially execute both of these functions.

This is the next phase of school reform in ________.

Four Ways to Unwind the Allure of Order


Note: the content below is probably better suited for a short book. But I tried to stuff it into a post. Clearly, much I’m still working through. Feedback would be great.


In his book the Allure of Order, Jal Mehta identifies two major problems with American education: (1) elites keep on initiating top-down accountability reforms that only lead to modest performance increases; and (2) the teaching profession has failed to professionalize into a field that self-regulates itself through codification of practice, pragmatic research that leads to performance improvements, and professional standards.

As I noted in a previous post, the problem here is that neither of these conditions appears to be changing anytime soon. Top-down annual testing has the political support of elites, civil rights leaders, and even union leadership. And numerous attempts to overhaul teacher preparation have for the most part been blocked by colleges of education.


How might we get out of this?

In considering different strategies, I tried to predict how a few key variables (which are embedded in Jal’s argument) might be impacted:

(1) Human capital: would the reforms increase our ability to recruit and develop excellent educators?

(2) Innovation: would the reforms increase our ability to experiment, research, and learn?

(3) Accountability: would the reforms increase elite trust in education so that top-down accountability might be loosened?

(4) Time: how long would it take to scale the reforms?


Based on the above variables, here’s the four strategies I came up with. Three of them entail moving away from government operation of schooling, and one does not.

(1) Nevada: Scale the Nevada education savings account model; basically: give every family an education debit card, put minimal restrictions on expenditures, and let the market work.

(2) The Non-Profit Flip: No city has tried this, but I’ve wondered about whether we should create a legislative framework that allowed cities to opt-in to 100% non-profit model. Basically, a state would allow cities to convert all their schools into non-profits over a set time period, say 2-3 years.

(3) Pump Charters: This would entail basically trying to maintain a 10% annual national charter growth rate over the next 25 years, which would get us to around 50% national charter market share.

(4) Fight For Finland: Alternatively, we could try and maintain government operation of schools but achieve what we’ve failed to achieve to date: a major increase in the quality of teacher recruitment and development and a loosening of accountability.


A brief analysis:

Strategy Better Human Capital? Increased Innovation? More Flexible Accountability? Time to Scale
Nevada Probably: for-profit incentives could attract a lot of talent, though likely more at management than teacher level. Yes: Putting funds in family hands will allow for entrepreneurs to create solutions for family needs. Yes, in Nevada reduced accountability (simple norm referenced reporting) is already baked into the model. Presumably, functioning markets could be created in a few years in most states.
The Flip

Not initially: a rapid switch to non-profit model would most likely utilize existing talent.

Not initially: given flip would be result of conversion rather than entrepreneurship, existing model likely to be prevalent. Long-term, new models could replace failed schools. Not likely: this reform would probably be based on portfolio style accountable and performance management.

Few years to convert schools to non-profits.

Pump Charters Yes: best charters have demonstrated ability to recruit and develop great educators; also already seeing codification (Relay), and research (partnering with Harvard, MIT, etc.) Yes: charters have been driving innovation (blended, diverse by design etc.), though more to be done here. Perhaps: if all schools were run by decent operators, elites might be more willing to loosen reigns. Probably 20-30 years.
Fight For Finland Unlikely: numerous calls to reform ed schools have failed, why will this time be different? No: existing government operated model has not led to much innovation; this won’t change. Unlikely: so long as the teaching force and schools feel and perform the same, elites will maintain demands. Probably 20-30 years to overhaul ed schools and influence elites (it took Finland decades).


Basically, you have two strategies that can work fast: Nevada and The Flip.

The upside of Nevada is that you get rapid deregulation, the conditions for a lot of innovation, and a baked in loosening of the reigns. The downside is that there is not an intentional human capital strategy, and there are a ton of risks in the deregulation going wrong.

The Flip gets you educator autonomy very quickly, but it does not intentionally focus on human capital pipelines or entrepreneurship – so while it sets the conditions for rapid change, it will not deliver it overnight. Moreover, given that all of these non-profits would need to be performance managed, it probably maintains need for heavy accountability.

Then you have two strategies that work slowly: Pump Charters and Fight For Finland.

Pump Charters is appealing in that: there is an explicit human capital strategy (alt providers, charters developing their own, Relay, etc.), is based on entrepreneurship (which will drive innovation), and, potentially, could build up enough trust to loosen accountability. If every school in a city was run by KIPP, Uncommon, Summit, and DSST – it’s not hard to imagine moving toward less testing, as there would be less of a need for constant monitoring. The downside here is that the strategy would take decades to even get to 50% market share, and the sector remains uneven in quality.

Fight For Finland is appealing in that it it is a path other countries have taken. Increasing human capital, increasing autonomy, and loosening accountability has worked elsewhere. Though, from what I gather, it takes countries decades to make these types of reforms. Additionally, I imagine they are much harder to accomplish in a large nation with decentralized governance of schools. We should take something from the fact that we’ve failed to accomplish this over the past 100 years of reform in our country.


In sum: it feels like Pumping Charters, with side bets like Nevada, might be the best way forward.

Pumping Charters has a twenty year history, and in Jal’s terms, it is thick (encompasses human capital, instruction, innovation, research, etc). I also think that Pumping Charters has an upside that is higher than Fight for Finland, though this of course remains unproven at scale.

Nevada is a high upside high risk bet, but if it works, we should double down on it.

So perhaps Pumping Charters should be the default path to push down until we can find a quicker method of reform (and we should keep making side bets while we’re Pumping Charters).

Of course, to the extent education schools get better, it helps all of these strategies. So while I remain skeptical that we’ll see any major changes soon, it seems like a side bet worth making as well.

Lastly, note that scaling high-performing charters and reforming are current system roughly work on the same time horizon here. So next time someone tells you we have to focus on districts because that’s where the kids are, tell this person that she is asking the wrong question.  The question is not: where are the children now? The question is: how long will it take to fix at scale?

Were the New Orleans Reforms Worth It?

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Times Picayune Headline from coverage of the Education Research Alliance conference

There was a reoccurring theme at the Education Research Alliance Conference: people admitting that student achievement had gone up but now asking “was it worth the cost?”

This is very important.

Numerous studies and data analysis have shown that the New Orleans results were real, but I do think Doug Harris’ study – if it holds up – will be the definitive research that puts to bed any notion that the reforms did not increase student achievement.

In case you missed his presentation, Doug found .2-.45 standard deviation achievement gains. In subsequent posts, I’ll try and put that in context, but for now it’s worth spending time on the rhetorical shifts that are happening.

Instead of fierce debates denying improvements,conversations shifted to whether the reforms were worth it.

This is an important question, and it’s a fair one.

Surely, there is some cost to reform that is too high. Weighing different values and interests will determine where one sets this bar.

In the case of New Orleans, the main cost discussed at the conference was how the democratically elected Orleans Parish School Board fired the teachers after Hurricane Katrina.

It is undeniable that this occurred and that it led to real harm in the lives of many people. I also think that it’s difficult to extrapolate what this might mean for other cities.

Katrina did not just disrupt the lives of teachers, it disrupted the lives of everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people lost some combination of their homes and jobs. All of this was devastating.

Other cities, thankfully, will be trying to improve education under very different circumstances.

As for the future of New Orleans, I think there is both a moral and pragmatic imperative to increase the number of teachers being drawn from within the city.

No one is thinking about this more than the leaders of New Orleans schools, and I’m excited to watch New Orleans educators reinvent what it means to recruit and develop teachers in a manner that empowers communities, children and adults alike.

My hope is that other cities will be able to learn from these innovations, and that these innovations will change the current calculus of the question: “was increasing student achievement worth the cost?”

I remain convinced that reform need not be a zero sum game between community empowerment and student achievement. People should not misread New Orleans history and draw an erroneous conclusion that this is the moral of the story.

Education Reform is Getting Less Fragile


Fifteen years ago, if you somehow had gotten rid of the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Teach For America, you may have squashed much of education reform in its tracks. Education reform was fragile.

I don’t think this remains the case.

Education reform is much less fragile than it used to be. Now, more than ever, it can take hits, learn from mistakes, contain defeats, and accelerate innovations.


Education Reform has Gotten More Local

The rise of local harbor master organizations, coupled with the related increased sophistication of local philanthropic efforts, coupled with the development of local charter school organizations – has led to the decentralization of education reform.

There is no central brain dictating reform strategies; no central mouth leading a national reform cry; no central body delivering reform across the country.

In addition, numerous organizations, such as 50 Can (with their fellowship model), Achievement First (with their charter school accelerator), Teach For America (with their current decentralization efforts), and KIPP (with their fellowship program) – are all advancing the effort to localize reform.

This is not to say large, national organizations cannot add value; rather, it’s only to say that the increasing scope of locally driven efforts makes the movement less fragile as a whole.

Education Reform has Gained More Constituents 

Modern education reform was born out of an alliance of policy elites, civil rights organizations, and business elites. This, in and of itself, is a formidable coalition – and it has carried the movement far.

But the rapid growth of the charter sector, which now serves 3 million students, is creating an even more important constituent group: parents.

Or to put it another way: there are now roughly as many students in charter schools as there are teachers in the NEA and AFT.

Given that (unfortunately), teachers unions have often opposed the expansion of charter schools, the  increasing number of charter school parents could, eventually, lead to a real power shift.

Implications, Issues, Looking Forward 

The power of schools boards and teacher unions has in large part been due to their diffuse nature.

Education reform is increasingly building up a robust set of local, decentralized institutions that should provide long-term staying power.

Though there are some weak spots: education reform is still too heavily finance by philanthropy; over time, it will need to utilize its growing constituency base to provide increased public funding to reform efforts that support the public good.

Additionally, going from a niche role to a systems level role is causing some growing pains, both in terms of mindset and capacity (See: The Times – Are They a Changin’).

But, overall, education reform continues to gain momentum, achieve results, and localize.

This all bodes well for its future.

Having Skin in the Game in Education Reform


In his book, AntiFragile, Nicholas Taleb comes down hard on people who don’t have skin in the game.

His list of bad actors is wide ranging: op-ed writers, corporate executives, consultants – to name a few.

His main argument is that all of these folks get paid handsomely and yet have no exposure to downside risk. Op-ed writers are rarely fired if their predictions are wrong; corporate executives still cash out if their companies go under; and consultants create powerpoint decks and then go onto the next client.

As a blogger (low status op-ed writer) and education consultant, this made me consider my own work (I’ve previously written about my worries about being a consultant).


The truth of it is this: in most ways that really matter, I don’t have skin in the game in education reform.

I don’t have children.

I don’t live in most of the communities where I work.

And, push comes to shove, I could probably find another career if my education work failed.

The only real skin in the game that I have is my reputation.


I try to mitigate not having skin in the game in a few ways:

1. I try to increase public accountability by being explicit about my theory of change and expected outcomes: I believe urban educational systems can achieve ~.1 effects by transitioning to all charter systems. I say this consistently and clearly. In the one area I do have skin in the game (my reputation), I’ve tried to act in a manner that allows others to hold me accountable.

2. I try to pay a lot of attention to those who do have skin in the game. I take parent demand very seriously.

3. I try to put myself in the position of the families I attempt to serve. When I led NSNO, we reflected as a staff on the question of which schools in New Orleans we would send our children (real or imagined). This line of thinking has led to me increasingly supporting diverse by design schools, as these are the schools I believe that I would most likely send my own (imagined) children to. Ultimately, imagined skin in the game is a weak form of having skin in the game, but it is a starting point.


I do think I can be a part of increasing educational opportunity and equity despite not having children.

But I’m not ignorant of the risks of my position: in so many ways, I don’t have a skin in the game.

Of course, many education reformers do.

American Millennials are Dumber than Other OECD Millennials

Robert Pondiscio recently blogged on this report AMERICA’S SKILLS CHALLENGE: Millennials and the Future.

Both are worth reading.

Basically, just about anyway you cut it, America’s millennial (ages 16-34) do worse than most OECD countries on skills tests; specifically:

1. As a nation, we do worse as a whole when compared to other OECD nations.

2. Our best millennials do worse than the best millennial of other nations.

3. Our lowest performing millennials do worse than the lowest performing millennials of other nations.

4. Our native born millennials do worse than the native born millennials of other nations.

5. Our gaps between highest and lowest performing millennials are amongst the highest in the OECD.

6. Perhaps most distressing, this generation is performing worse than previous American generations.

7. Also, we spend more on education than just about any nation in the world.


The Link Between Test Performance and Economic Growth

America has always done mediocre on international assessments, yet we’re the richest large nation in the world. Clearly, some combination of our culture, policies, and resources continue to deliver significant wealth.

Of course, this is not a controlled experiment. Perhaps if we were betted educated we’d be even richer. And perhaps our other competitive advantages will erode due to globalization and technology.

In a World of Limited Resources, Where Do You Invest?

Even if you believe that raising academic achievement would increase economic growth, this does not mean that raising academic achievement is the most efficient way to increase economic growth.

For example, if you had a billion dollars to give, you might spend it on immigration reform rather than education, with the idea that more immigrants = more entrepreneurs = more wealth creating companies.

Just because you identify a problem, it doesn’t mean that it’s the problem you should be devoting marginal resources to solving.

In this sense, you could argue that we should be cutting spending from education (since we are paying so much for such mediocre outcomes) and put the funds in areas that are more likely to deliver better societal outcomes.

If You Want to Make Things Better, What Do You Do?

Regardless of where you invest or cut marginal resources, we’re still going to be delivering publicly funded education, so it’s definitely worth trying to make it better. Over the past few years, I’ve been fairly consistent in my recommendations for improving American education: (1) devolve operational control of schools to non-profits (2) increase selectivity and training of new teachers (3) make long-term bets on technology (4) restructure grades 11-16 to better transition students into gainful employment (5) increase wage subsidies and the EITC to reduce poverty.


That being said, there will always be a ceiling to what education reform and poverty alleviation can accomplish.

Ultimately, we cannot outperform who we are. We study less than the top Asian nations. And we kill each other more often than most European nations.

But there is also this:

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Nearly all of the top 10 companies in the world (measured by market value) are located in the United States.

Somethings we do well.

Which begs two questions:

Will we continue to do well what we currently do well?

Or will our weak academic outcomes catch-up with us?

It’s difficult to tell.

Why Do You Work in Education?

This Gregory Clark piece on social mobility is well worth a read.

Clark’s argument:

Given that social mobility rates are immutable, it is better to reduce the gains people make from having high status, and the penalties from low status. The Swedish model of compressed inequality is a realistic option, the American dream of rapid mobility an illusion.

Before you dismiss his argument, note that Clark is a thoughtful and thorough researcher. His book A Farewell to Alms made my list of greatest personal intellectual influences.

Furthermore, regardless of what you believe on the possibility of increasing social mobility, it’s at least highly plausible that tax transfers, rather than educational improvement, are the most effective way to reduce inequality.

All this is to say, if you are working in education to increase social mobility or to reduce income inequality, it’s worth being humble about what your efforts might accomplish. There are other forces at play in addition to education, and these forces are strong – social networks, racism, genetics, globalization, nationalism, technology, to name a few.

Personally, my motivations for working in education have evolved over time.

Some of them are personal, and selfish, I suppose (I like the people I work with; I find the problems interesting; I’m compensated well enough).

And some of them are about helping others.

In terms of this set of motivations, I hope that improving educational opportunity can:

1. Reduce injustices in educational opportunity that continue to plague our country, whereby the color of a a people’s skin or the size of their bank account determines the quality of the education they receive.

2. Allow individuals to gain the ways of thinking, information, and income necessary to lead a fulfilling life (as defined by the individual).

3. Curb ills that, at the very least, are correlated to education, such as propensity for violence, unemployment, and fractured families.

4. Provide vehicles for the world changers (in every sense of the world: curing diseases, discovering new energy sources, creating beautiful art), to accelerate their world changing pursuits.

Of these four reasons, only the first is really about where an individual falls along the curve of outcomes. The remaining three are more about shifting the whole curve to the right.

I’m sure my thinking will continue to evolve over time.

But, every once in awhile, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on the question: why do you work in education?