Category Archives: Equity

The stories we tell and the truths we hide: fairness, mobility, and inequality

Nature just published an article by Paul Bloom, Christina Starmans, and Mark Sheshkin.

Their argument: people care more about fairness than inequality, and policy makers and pundits too often ignore the difference between these two concepts.

In their own words:

Our own argument against a focus on inequality is a psychological one… people don’t care about reducing inequality per se. Rather, people have an aversion toward unfairness, and under certain special circumstances this leads them to reject unequal distributions. In other conditions, including those involving real-world distributions of wealth, it leads them to favour unequal distributions. In the current economic environment in the United States and other wealthy nations, concerns about fairness happen to lead to a preference for reducing the current level of inequality. However, in various other societies across the world and across history (for example, when faced with the communist ideals of the former USSR), concerns about fairness lead to anger about too much equality. To understand these opposite drives, one needs to focus not on whether the system results in a relatively equal or unequal distribution of wealth, but whether it is viewed as fair.

The authors might be right that humans care more about fairness than inequality, but I think people’s reasons for caring about fairness are wrong.

Here’s my current thinking on fairness – the related concept of mobility – and inequality:

Fairness is a fantasy.

I don’t believe that fairness is achievable. We don’t choose our genes, our environment, and we might not even have free will – so how is anything really fair?

Obama’s “you didn’t build this” line remains one of the most philosophically honest statements that a president has uttered since I’ve been following politics.

And an even more honest statement would have been: “you didn’t build you.”

I suppose you could redefine a “fair” society as one where people are able to live out the full potential of their genes and environment, but this hardly captures the totality of what people think about when they say they desire fairness.

In a perfectly fair world there would be little mobility. 

People often use mobility as a measure of fairness. The more rags to riches stories there are, the fairer a society must be. I think this is backwards. In a perfectly fair society, there would little mobility, as genes and environment would drive so much of outcomes. We’d be stagnantly sorted save for random shocks or to the extent that technological change affected what genes and environments were valuable.

The desirability of mobility is predicated on the idea that people justly move up or down a society’s rungs based on their own volition – and this is a fantasy.


People should care about inequality!

I’m open to the idea that people don’t care about inequality as much as liberal pundits think they do. But I think people are foolish not to care! When the inputs (genes and environment) are randomly sprinkled across humanity, inequality of outcomes should be a concern for us all, because, in the truest sense of the word, these outcomes are unfair.

Our are fantasies of use?

Perhaps. People desiring fairness as an outcome – and using mobility as a proxy for fairness – may help avoid things like free loading, distrust, and government tyranny. These myths might also increase hard work and entrepreneurship. I grant that these myths have survived many rounds of social evolution, and in this sense should warrant some respect.

But believing these myths comes at a great cost in that we falsely blame people for their bad outcomes and tolerate insanely brutal amounts of inequality to maintain the artifice.

It might just be better to live in a world where we say: “we know the world is terribly unfair and it’s no one’s fault so we are willing to push marginal tax rates and transfers as high as possible until we near the part of the curve where disincentives to work are  greatly hampering economic growth and screwing us all.”

Or perhaps society would function poorly in the face of us all admitting this reality.

I don’t really know.

Either way, our myths of fairness and mobility blind us to the reality the world is unjustly unequal.

Brown University vs. Science

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University just released a report on state turnaround districts.

Brown University 

The report states:

In short, the Recovery School District, which was marketed (and continues to be lauded) as ushering in a miraculous transformation in New Orleans, has not kept its promise to some of the country’s most disadvantaged students.

The report cites another report, from Stanford University, and makes the following claims about equity and accountability:

The SCOPE [Stanford center] review also found that school quality and accountability are impeded by the lack of a strong central system (within the RSD) to support instructional improvement or maintain safeguards to ensure equity and access to reasonable quality of education.


Here is what Doug Harris, who actually studied student achievement in New Orleans, wrote:

For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.

Here’s a graph that captures these gains:

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As for equity, I think this has been NOLA’s greatest innovation. I wrote a report on it. Here’s a highlight: despite serving a very at-risk student population, New Orleans has a lower expulsion rate than the state.

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As for accountability, it’s hard to think of a city that has been more serious about ensuring students don’t attend failing schools. In 2004, 60% of New Orleans students attended a school that was in the bottom 10% of the state. Now 13% do.

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People Who Live in New Orleans 

Lastly, here’s what New Orleanians think about the reforms:

Reasonable people can debate whether or not other states will see the same results.

But to say that the RSD has not kept its promise to the country’s most disadvantaged students is not supported by science.

Of course, there is still an incredibly long way to go in New Orleans. ACT scores, for example, are at an all-time high at around 19, but this still falls short of college and career ready.

Also, the New Orleans reforms were messy. While the academic results are undeniable, it’s been ten years of tense and difficult work, with many mistakes made along the way.

But if you don’t want things to be messy, you’re in the wrong line of work. The issues or race, class, and poverty are insanely complicated. If you work in the sector and haven’t changed your mind about a major issue, then you’re probably not thinking deeply enough.

All that being said… the student achievement gains are real. Children are better off.

And students across the country would be much better off if other cities achieved results similar to those in New Orleans.

Hopefully this will occur.

A Debate Within the Family: To Regulate or Not?

Jay Greene had a series of posts on choice regulation over at his blog.

His overarching argument: regulating school choice does more harm than good.

Broadly, I think Jay makes a number of good points. I also think he overstates his case.

More specifically, I think his arguments are somewhat strong on performance and pretty weak on equity.

I also think that Jay could be more conservative on how he generalizes fairly narrow research findings, especially given how hard he is on others who misuse research!

Overall, Jay made me think harder about how philanthropists should allocate resources across choice interventions. He might be right that there is too much attention to charters. I think if voucher proponents were more serious about equity regulation they could help shift the focus. I’d be happy to work with Jay and others on this. Nevada and other pilots that attempt to achieve scale could be fruitful places to partner and learn more.

Below I tackle his main points.

Government funding does not require performance oversight.

Jay notes that cash transfer programs (such as Social Security) do not come with government performance contracts. This is true.

Jay also notes that food stamps don’t come up with performance contracts. In his words: “When the government provides food stamps it does not require recipients to submit BMI measurements or other indicators of adequate nutrition.”

This is true, but it’s not a perfect example, as the government does require the providers of food to meet performance input targets (food must have some nutritional value). The government does not trust the consumer to make his or her own decisions, so choice is restricted based on the nutritional performance of the food provider’s product.

While there is not accountability for outcomes, there is heavy regulation of inputs.

More broadly, we are seeing more and more performance accountability in government health programs (Obamacare looking at things such as readmission rates) and government post-secondary programs (requiring schools that receive Pell grants to achieve certain performance targets).

Jay overstates his case when he says: “Repeating that government funds require accountability to the government is just mindless sloganeering, not an accurate description of how government programs typically operate.”

Yes, education testing is probably on the more regulated end of pay for performance. But the issue is a complicated one, and most government programs (except for direct cash transfers) regulate inputs and many also regulate outputs.

There is a vast academic literature on these various approaches.

Whether or not to regulate for outputs is worthy of deep debate, not outright dismissal.

Personally, I’m probably closer to Jay on this than the average charter supporter. I think that, over time, not regulating for performance would likely work out. In my previous writings, I’ve often said that I’d make the “all choice for no testing” trade with the far left and the far right.

But I think the issue is complicated. And, as I note below, I’m fairly comfortable with the government putting in a performance floor and closing down the very worst performers.

Test Scores are Limited Tools; Attainment is a Better Proxy for Quality than Test Scores; Vouchers Do Better on Attainment

Jay rightfully points out that test don’t measure everything: things like grit and conscientiousness are likely very important to lifetime outcomes and it is very difficult to capture these in tests.

Matt Barnum did a good response on this. In short, numerous studies have tied increases in test scores to increases in long-term outcomes. None of these studies are a slam dunk, and causation can be tricky, but there’s enough here to make a case that achievement tests measure some of what we want schools to be doing.

For these reasons, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that performance accountability, if it is to be used, should be used as a floor rather than the end all be all of school grading. Perhaps “A-F” systems should just be “F” systems.

Jay then argues that because testing doesn’t measure everything, attainment is actually a better measure of school quality.

Jay might be right, but it’s complicated. Yes, achieving a degree (be it high school or post secondary) will likely increase a student’s life outcomes. But the more this degree attainment is divorced from knowledge attainment (and test scores), the weaker this effect might become over time (unless employers really just care about conscientiousness, which may very well be the case).

All told, the international evidence on “schooling ain’t learning” is robust.

That being said, in terms of policy, I don’t really have much to disagree with here. As I noted above, I have mixed feelings on performance accountability as it is, and an increased focus on attainment might be very healthy for the charter community.

Jay then makes the case that vouchers do better on achievement than charters. Jay cites three studies, two of which find higher degree attainment. The Milwaukee study found increased high school degree and college persistence with voucher students, while the DC study found voucher students had increased high school graduation. The NYC programs only increased college attendance (I didn’t see any evidence on graduation). Moreover, the NYC program was only a partial scholarship, which as far as I can tell required families to pay for a portion of schooling (which makes it hard to generalize to families that could not afford to pay). The DC voucher program was fairly small in scope as well.

This does not seem to be an evidence base from which one can make strong, generalized claims about what voucher effects would be on a systems level. Only the Milwaukee and DC programs come near providing a full voucher program, and only the Milwaukee program got to real scale.

As Jay points out, the most rigorous charter research finds positive effects on test scores rather than attainment. But the evidence on test score gains is massive: CREDO has studied dozens of cities and have found an overall effect of ~.1 for urban areas serving hundreds of thousands of students. This research includes three markets where charters serve roughly half of all students or more (NOLA, DC, Detroit). And the impact on New Orleans attainment has been very significant (high school graduation rates are up twenty points). Of course, systems level evidence is  not randomly controlled, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not useful; in many instances, it’s probably more predictive than small RCTs.

If I had to bet on which intervention is most likely to work at scale, I’d be inclined to bet on a massive data set that found positive effects on test scores rather than a very narrow data set of three studies where only two study found higher degree attainment.

Of course, I might be wrong. But Jay has surely not proven his case. The evidence he cites covers small scale studies that make it difficult to generalize.

We Should Not Regulate Choice Programs for Equity

Jay first notes that heavy regulations –  “such as mandating that schools accept voucher amounts as payment in full, prohibiting schools from applying their own admissions requirements” – decreases the number of participating private schools.  This is clearly true.

Undoubtedly, more private schools will enroll voucher students if they can screen out students with behavioral issues and very low income students (which is what admissions requirements and pay-sharing would do).

In arguing against regulation, Jay writes: “But real education reform requires using the power of choice and competition to provide incentives to create more good and to reduce bad.”

Yet Jay’s version of education reform would clearly incentivize schools to not enroll students with behavioral issues or children from very low incomes. Why enroll a student who is hard to serve or who can only pay partial tuition?

This is the biggest flaw in Jay’s argument.

Jay is probably right that the performance market would correct itself over time.

It is very unclear to me that this would be true for equity.

It was surprising to me that Jay did not even find this obvious rebuttal worth mentioning.

Voucher proponents such as Jay would do well to think hard about reasonable equity regulations that ensure that decentralized choice markets offer good educational opportunities to all students.

Charter markets are moving toward unified enrollment and expulsion processes as easy to regulate for equity. Perhaps these processes are too heavy handed.

But I think some equity mechanisms need to be put in place.

Of course, you can make the argument that it is ok to have unequal public educational access so long as this system lifts all boats in the aggregate. Given that I believe that equity in access is a principle in of itself, it would take fairly large overall achievement gains for me to be willing to compromise so hard on equity.

Concluding Thoughts

There does seem to be enough in theory and evidence to support larger scale pilots of voucher programs.

This is why many people, charter school supporters included, are eager to see what we learn from Nevada.

For whatever it’s worth, my two major critique of the Nevada voucher were that the voucher amount was not enough money and that equitable access safeguards do not seem to be in place.

But overall I think it’s a very important breakthrough for choice.

So if the goal is more experimentation at scale, sign me up.

But in this experimentation I’d just argue for some basic equity guardrails so that choice is available to everyone, including the most disadvantaged.

Lastly, thanks to Jay for putting forth a good argument. It’s well worth grappling with.

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 ________.

The Hidden Connection Between Charter Schools and Equity

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools just released a report that I wrote…

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You can read the whole thing here (you can skim it in about 10 minutes).

I enjoyed writing the piece because it allowed me to reflect on what I believe to be the most overlooked part of the New Orleans reform effort: the fact that the reforms significantly increased equity, not just academic quality.

Some excerpts below…

…at the outset of the reform effort, New Orleans leaders failed to ensure that all schools in the city adopted equitable practices. Bad apples in the charter community denied enrollment to students with severe special needs and expelled students for low-level infractions. While these schools were in the minority, their practices brought into question whether or not the reforms could benefit every student.


Undoubtedly, there are legitimate reasons to support neighborhood schools: families value school proximity, and a neighborhood school can connect the greater community to the children in the area. However, neighborhood schools also serve as the anchors of extreme inequality in access to public schools.


In too many cities, the government turns a blind eye to the persistence of failing schools, thereby undermining any real hope for educational equity. In these cities, operating a school is the right of the incumbent: save for the most extreme circumstances, the school goes on.


Ultimately, it is not a coincidence that there has been a direct relationship between the RSD reducing the number of schools it operated and the RSD increasing its effective- ness as a regulator.


Various organizations—including the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and numerous community-based organizations—opposed the strategy of charter school expansion. Some were opposed to charter schools on ideological and policy grounds, others opposed the way charter schooling was implemented in New Orleans.

The differences in ideology and policy remain unresolved. However, at times, the social justice community’s calling out of unjust school actions and systems level inequities acceler- ated the implementation of equity solutions.

Perhaps, over time, New Orleans will become a model for how education reform leaders and social justice leaders can influence each other in a manner that is for the betterment of all children. At a minimum, charter advocates need to welcome a dialogue with social justice leaders as it will create positive pressure for change.


Moreover, this bipartisanship has been sustained despite attacks from the flanks of both parties. The far left continues to levy accusations of privatization, while the far right bemoans the centralization of equity and accountability regulations.

Do read the whole thing.

The Mechanisms of Equity


When I give talks about the New Orleans education system, I argue that New Orleans is on its way to becoming the most equitable urban school district in the nation.

That being said, recently, there has been a decent amount of negative national media attention on special education and discipline issues in New Orleans.

Often, after the talk is over, and when we move into audience questions, someone will mention these articles and challenge my assertion about New Orleans and equity.

I respond by saying: New Orleans isn’t a perfect system, but New Orleans educators are tackling equity issues head on. Many systems are not. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, New Orleans has a clear set of rules on equity that are increasingly being enforced in a thoughtful manner.

I also note that New Orleans expulsion rates are below the state average, and that CREDO found that students with special needs are achieving at a higher rater in New Orleans charter schools than in similarly situated schools. Neither of these measures are perfect, but I think the picture this data paints is largely correct.


This article tells a story that supports the notion that, in New Orleans, equity is on the rise . The whole piece is short and worth reading, but the takeaway is this: the RSD sanctioned a top performing charter for violating enrollment rules.

Arguably, the sanction is not strict enough, but I do think it will make a difference and change the school’s practice. Moreover, the sanction seems reasonably appropriate given that the school is providing a good education for a lot of kids; revoking the charter would have likely done more harm than good.


It’s worth considering why equity is on the rise in New Orleans.

My take:

1. The government solely functions as a regulator of the system. Its focus is almost exclusively on promulgating and enforcing rules, not operating schools.

2. The government has created processes and infrastructure – in this case a unified enrollment system – that allow for careful monitoring of the system.

3. The values of the government, which are modeled by the RSD’s leader, are rooted in social justice.

4. The entrepreneurs who launch schools in New Orleans are deeply driven by an equity agenda.


I remain convinced that charter schools, when regulated thoughtfully, will the be drivers, and not inhibitors, of  educational equity.

To be clear, every day many students in New Orleans still suffer from inequitable practices.

But the number of students that suffer from inequity continues to decrease.

And I’m confident this trend will continue.