Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Does anyone know why Chicago children are getting smarter?

If you just read the headlines, you might suspect that Chicago’s public schools are in a terrible tailspin. Part of this is the noise of big city politics. Part of this stems from cloud of violence that hangs over the city.

But Chicago has improved on academic test scores more than most other cities in the country. Rather than one of the worst, Chicago is one of the best.

A recent report by Sean Reardon and Rebecca Hinze-Pifer found that between 2009 and 2014:

“This [student achievement] growth rate [of Chicago] is higher than 96% of all districts in the US. Among the 100 largest districts in the country, the average growth rate from third to eighth grade is 0.95 grade equivalents per year; Chicago has the highest growth rate between third and eighth grade of any large district in the United States.”

The authors admit that they don’t know why this occurred.

I can’t prove why Chicago kids are getting smarter, but I have a hypothesis.

What’s Been Going on in Chicago Public Schools? 

One way to try and solve the mystery of why Chicago children are getting smarter is to look at the district’s previous major initiatives.

As this report details, between roughy 1990 and 2010 there were three overarching eras of reform in Chicago: the decentralization era, the the accountability era, and the do a lot of things era.

The authors are very careful to not attribute a causal relationship between reform eras and outcomes. The reforms were messy and not rolled out in an experimental manner – so fair enough.

But in this post I’ll try and make my best guess on what was causal and what was not.

The Decentralization Era

The decentralization era was best known for the creation of Local School Councils. This reform gave local councils real control over decisions about how schools were run. The councils were made up of school leadership, parents, and community members.

The councils always seemed like a terrible idea to me. It’s basically taking all we know about charter schools (good central offices, scalable instructional programs, governance matters) and doing the exact opposite!

Not surprisingly, research on the reforms found that the councils had some positive effects on advantage communities, but were least likely to improve schools in low-income communites. Communities with low social capital didn’t gain a lot from ad-hoc and poorly constructed local boards.

I’m very skeptical that the decentralization era and school councils were the root cause of later gains.

The Accountability Era

In 1995 Mayor Daly put in Paul Valls as the superintendent (I later worked with Paul when he was the superintendent of the RSD in Louisiana). Vallas, who did not have deep instructional expertise, used test driven accountability to try and make things better.

New tests, promotional standards, and interventions for failing schools were all put in place.

The reforms had better impacts for low-performing schools; the researchers noted:

“This was the only era to show large improvements in the lowest- achieving schools. However, the patterns in test scores in the lowest-performing schools suggest that some of the improvements resulted from instruction that was aligned specifically to the high stakes tests.”

This matches other research on accountability reforms: you tend to see gains in the lowest preforming schools, but the high stakes can cause narrowing of the curriculum.

 

The Do a Lot of Things Era

Arne Duncan came in after Vallas, and he instituted a lot of reforms.

Arne launched 100 new schools, implemented internal district instructional and curricular reforms, overhauled school leadership pipelines, and placed a deep focus on on-time high school progression.

Perhaps the biggest initiative of this era was the Renaissance 2010 project, which launched about a 100 new district, charter, and contract schools between 2005 and 2010.

Unfortunately, no one has conducted a full evaluation of the program. Someone should do this!

Two interim research reports came out around 2010. One study, which only included a few years of data from the early Renaissance cohorts, found that the new schools performed about the same as the existing district schools. The other study was inconclusive.

Not much help from the research community.

A lot of work was also done on school leadership. The Chicago Public Education Fund, in partnership with the district, invested heavily in school leader development, placing bets on both district based and non-profit providers.

The lastest research I could find on these programs found that “results indicate that one-year learning gains in elementary and high schools led by Fund-supported principals were not different than those in other similar schools.”

Another major reform, another mediocre result.

All told, researchers found that this era produced more gains in high school than elementary schools, but wrote: “while the effects of the dominant policies of Eras 1 and 2 are largely understood, much research remains to be done to understand both the positive and problematic effects of the policies in Era 3.”

Not super helpful, especially since this is the era that preceded the large gains in test scores that occurred after 2009.

What About the Charter Sector? 

CREDO published a report on Chicago charters that covered test scores from 2010 to 2012, which is right in the middle of the period where Chicago saw a lot of gains.

The study found +.01 effects in reading and +.03 effects in math. These effects amount to about a month or so of extra learning per year, maybe a bit less. Given Chicago’s relatively small charter market share, and the modest size of these positive effects, it’s unlikely that charters themselves accounted for the 2009-2014 gains.

A more recent study, which just looked at charter high school performance from 2010-2013, found much larger effects: +.2 effects on ACT related tests and much higher college enrollment rates.

These are large effects, but they are for high school only. The study lauding Chicago’s gains only covered grades 3-8.

So WTF Happened in Chicago to Make Kids Smarter?

To summarize: Chicago improved its test scores more than any other big city in the country, and researchers really don’t know why.

So why are Chicago kids getting smarter?

Here’s my guess: competition and accountability lifted all boats.

When you put accountability in place (the Vallas era) and then launch a 100 new schools (the Duncan era) you get a city where school leaders know there are consequences for failure and the best of the new schools begin to raise the bar for what’s possible.

This theory helps explain why the Renaissance schools and charter effects were a bit muted. In the studies on these reforms, researchers compared the new schools to existing schools. So if the existing schools were improving due to increased competition, you would not see large relative effects for the new schools.

I can’t prove that accountability and competition caused the results, but in many sectors accountability and competition make everyone better. It also fits stories we’ve seen elsewhere. In place like Denver and Washington D.C. increased competition led to all boats rising in the public school system.

If you have a better theory, let me know.

What Should Chicago Do Now? 

Here’s another tough question: if it was accountability and competition that caused Chicago’s gains, how should this impact Chicago’s future strategy?

Since 2002 (while the district was getting much better!) Chicago enrollment plummeted from 440,000 students to 370,000 students.

This means that there are lot of under-enrolled schools in the district and the city might have to go through another round of painful closures.

This also it means it’s harder to push the very reform (opening new schools) that might have driven Chicago’s previous gains in achievement.

So what should the city do?

Reasonable people can surely disagree, but I would continue to create new schools, albeit in a different fashion.

First, I’d open new schools in the areas where population is increasing. Chicago is made up of a lot of neighborhoods, and not all neighborhoods are losing children.

Second, I would do some replacement work. Instead of closing all the under-enrolled schools, I’d try and select some neighborhoods where there’s enough child density that you could imagine families coming back to the public schools if there were better options. I’d launch replacement schools in these neighborhoods.

There are clear drawbacks to this strategy. Politically, it’s hard to justify opening schools when you’re in the midst of closures. Programmatically, it’s hard sell to get the operators of new schools to open up in neighbors with shrinking enrollment.

But I think it’s the best thing for children.

Lastly, I might also try and launch some diverse by design schools.

In a city as diverse as Chicago, it’s sad that it’s schools are so segregated.

The Last Word

Chicago’s Chief Education Officer, Janice Jackson, recently gave her take on why things are better.

Her list: pre-k, better professional development, better curriculum, competition from private and charter schools, and clear accountability standards.

In her own words:

“I believe the level of transparency we have provided around what a quality school is has been transformational in this district.”

Book Review: Ray Dalio’s Principles

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How to read it

I just finished Ray Dalio’s Principles and found the book to be both uneven and very useful.

Sometimes I’d read a few paragraphs and think “I should probably spend the next decade trying to get that right” and sometimes I’d read 10 pages and think “that’s a long way of saying something that everyone already knows.”

Thanks to Ken Bubp, our team is also digging into the book together, which I hope will make us better.

Already, there are a couple of areas where the book made me want to get much better – a few of those detailed below.

The point of a work conversations is to find the truth

The point of social conversation is not  to find the truth: it’s to build bonds, have fun, and play status games.

These social habits tend to bleed into work conversations and it takes a lot of deliberate effort to create an environment where truth seeking is the paramount goal of a conversation.

Specifically, truth finding conversations require the implementation of two difficult to reconcile mindsets: not holding tight too tight to one’s own opinions + being aggressive enough to pressure test another person’s opinions.

So team members have to constantly toggle between:

you’re a smart person who shares my values so I need to figure out why you think I’m wrong because I might be wrong

and

I think you’re wrong because of X and I will not back down from this opinion for the sake of being agreeable

This is tough to do.

Normalize and embrace emotional and intellectual pain

In social relationships, we tend to avoid pain. Doing so is often bad for the long-term health of social relationships, and it can be devastating in professional settings.

Too often in work:

  1. It is considered harmful to cause someone else intellectual or emotional pain.
  2. The first reaction of feeling pain is often to attack others and build self-promoting narratives.

Both of these are very hard to unwind.

It’s very difficult to create a cultural where it is ok to cause someone the right kind of pain.

And it’s very hard to have the individual fortitude to build an internal monologue that goes like this: “the fact that I’m feeling a lot of pain means this is a prime opportunity for growth.”

With fluff and abuse at the polar ends of the cultural spectrum, getting this right is hard.

Leaders are defenders of the standard 

The standard for thinking and performance starts at the top, and the leadership of an organization must constantly live the standard and hold all others to the standard (this is also the principle of the great book The Score Takes Care of Itself).

It takes a lot of mental stamina to hold the bar: in 1-1 check-ins, in team meetings, in external conversations with partners…

…to never nod your head unless you mean it is flat out exhausting… to always ask the next probing question is annoying…. to say it’s not good enough yet is tiring…

But if you don’t do it you, your team, your organization will slide into mediocrity.

Getting the balance right between people, processes, and technology

Leaders have a finite amount of energy and capital to allocate across people, processes, and technology.

Different organizations, industries, and time periods require different allocations – as well as different types of expenditures.

Dalio goes deep in how he managed these as he grew his hedge fund, early on relying more on technology than most of his peers. While some his efforts are generalizable, many of them are not.

But the discipline by which he came to his approach is generalizable, and it’s something I want to keep working on as our team, technology, and industry evolve.

Application

After our team conversation, we’ll have to figure out how to apply these lessons. In some cases, it might simply be through consciously applying these principles in our conversations; in some cases, we’ll build processes; and perhaps down the road we’ll build out some technology.

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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]

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.

Quick feedback for the New York Times

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The NYT just published an article on NYC’s school choice system.

The article is worth reading for its qualitative insights into what it’s like to navigate the system. I have deep empathy for families that struggle to find great schools for their children. They deserve much better.

But the framing of the piece is flawed, and I hope other journalists don’t repeat this mistake in future articles.

The authors argue that school choice has not delivered on its promise because many students still don’t have access to great schools.

But school choice does not increase the supply of great schools; rather, it is a mechanism to allow families to choose from schools that already exist.

School choice is about access and fairness. You can assign families to schools based on their address, or you can try to create more just systems. I strongly believe we should do the latter.

But increasing equity of access will likely not lead to dramatic jumps in quality.

It is only be creating new schools, scaling the best schools, and improving existing schools that quality increases. This is not the job of a citywide enrollment system.

Moreover, if you increase access but restrict supply you well get frustration. And this is exactly what has happened in New York City. The city’s enrollment system persists, but its efforts to increase supply have faltered.

When NYC leaders have focused on increasing supply – both through the small schools movement and growing the charter sector – rigorous research found that school quality increased. The results of these efforts are detailed below.

In sum:

School choice is all about equity in access.

School supply is about creating better options.

We should not confuse the two, and we should not expect school choice to increase school performance in and of itself. It must be coupled with a deep focus on school supply.

Small schools results:

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Charter results:

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How does a MGMT team figure out what their organization does?

On its face – “what does your organization do?” – should be an easy question for a MGMT to answer.

But it’s a hard question that I doubt many MGMT teams could accurately answer.

Three Reasons for “What We Do” Failure 

First and foremost, MGMT often confuse the question “what do we do?” with the question “how will we succeed?”

Second, MGMT teams often can’t say what they do in 1-2 sentences because they have failed to achieve clarity around their core activities.

Third, MGMT teams often can’t articulate the tactics and tasks that employmees execute in the daily carrying out of “what we do.”

My Tactics Failure 

Recently, I was struggling with executing and felt that achieving my goals was at-risk.

I then tried to think of what more I could do to achieve my goals.

I then realized that I wasn’t sure I possessed the full list of tactics I could pull from.

In short, I could not articulate the tactics and tasks of what we do.

Conducting a “What We Do” Audit 

Our team of four is twenty months old. And half our team has been with us for about a year or less.

This January, we achieved clarity on exactly what we do.

But we have not yet achieved clarity on what we do each day.

In hindsight, I think we should have brainstormed a tactics list before we launched our work.

That being said, codifying what we do each day after 20 months of work is not a terrible place to be in, given that you need time under your belt to figure out what you do each day.

To ensure we’re all learning from each other’s tactics – and building out a what we do toolkit – we’re conducting a three step process.

First, we’re going to articulate the major categories of daily work; i.e., “coach CEOs” and “coordinate with other philanthropists.”

Second, we’re going to list out all the tactics that fall within these categories.

Then we’re going to pressure test our categories and tactics, and debate if / why they are things we should be doing.

Building for Effectiveness and Scale

Conducing this “what we do audit” and codifying the tactic toolkit will ideally help with efficacy (each of us is drawing from a great toolkit built with our collective knowledge) and scale (if the team grows new members won’t have to learn solely from modeling and direct experience).

Of course, it’s impossible to codify everything it takes to execute at the highest level. No team is self-aware enough to codify everything, and the work is complicated enough that new situations will require first principles analysis of execution tactics.

But efficacy and innovation are born out of deep knowledge. And codification is a way of increasing knowledge.

Can you throw money at the problem of charter school growth? We might find out.

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President Trump’s federal budget calls for over $150 million in increased spending on charter schools.

Florida’s House of Representatives just passed a “Schools of Hope” bill that would provide $200 million to non-profit charters that opened schools in neighborhoods with high concentrations of “D” and “F” schools (the Senate has note yet voted).

Given that the rate of new school openings has dropped over the past few years, these new funds, if approved, could stimulate the pace of growth of charter schools.

Some reflections:

Will Florida funds increase growth or shift growth?

It’s unclear whether the Florida funds would increase charter growth or simply shift growth away from other states towards Florida.

My guess is that it will increase growth for two reasons: (1) it’s hard to grow across state lines so I doubt out of state operators could absorb the full $200 million and (2) if the for-profit world is any indication, other states will follow Florida’s lead to compete for great charter schools, which ultimately will create a greater pool of growth funds across the country, which should stimulate new entrepreneurs as well as provide funds for operators to grow in their home states.

How much does money incentive growth in the non-profit sector?

For management teams, growth is much less lucrative in the non-profit sector than it is in the for-profit sector. Salaries go up a bit, but not 50-100X, and there is no cashing out of equity.

There may be some status associated with winning big grants and growing, but the lack of financial incentives to individuals is probably a big barrier to successfully throwing money at the problem.

How much does money change the emotional incentives of charter entrepreneurship?

Perhaps money will have a positive causal effect through non-financial channels by changing the emotional incentives of charter entrepreneurship.

It takes a special kind of person to open a charter school when the local district, the local teacher’s union, and half your friends are telling you charter schools are destroying public education.

But what if the federal government and (eventually) dozens of states were offering large amounts of public dollars for you to open a charter school?

When the President, the Governor, and the Mayor are all asking you to grow – and putting their money up – perhaps this changes your emotional inclinations?

How much does money lower the headaches of growth?

Perhaps incentives should be thought less in terms of accusing gains and instead in avoiding pain.

Ask a charter operator what the biggest headache is for growth and facilities will inevitably be near the top of the list.

To the extent additional funds can be used (or allow other money to be used) for down payments on facilities, these funds might help stimulate growth.

My Guess

I think a state package of (1) multiple state authorized charters and (2) money for buildings would have a positive impact on growth.

Local school board authorization and lack of facility funds are huge headaches for even the most sophisticated charter organizations.

Removing these barriers would be a positive step forward.

However, I do worry that the process of lowering barriers, increasing funds, and scaling great operators will not meet the demands of the political cycle.

As this Politico piece notes, it’s unlikely that the nation’s best operators are going to immediately scale in Florida.

My recommendation to Florida would be to mimic the growth of the federal charter school program: start small, spend the funds prudently, and the increase the amount of funding available as operator capacity to growth increases.

In other words, fight for 25 years of 10% growth, not a 2-3 year moonshot.