Category Archives: Governance

What is California telling us about what parents want from public education?

I sit on the board of the California Charter School Association (CCSA), which is one of most effective charter associations in the nation.

Their data team put this slide together.

It’s a little complicated, but it’s very informative.

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To build the chart, CCSA looked at schools that are serving the same type of demographics and then compares their test scores.

A school that outperforms similar schools, gets a higher score (8-10 is really good); a school that underperforms similar schools, gets a lower school (1-3 is pretty bad).

This methodology – absolute test scores controlled for demographics – is imperfect, but it’s the best methodology you can use given California does not publicly report student growth scores.

Charter schools serving students in poverty outperform district schools on state tests 

43% of charter schools with higher concentrations of poverty outperform similar schools.

In California, if you are a low-income Hispanic or African-American child, you are more likely get a better education (as measured by test scores and parent demand) if you attend a charter school.

This is good news for the educators and families who are working together to create better educational outcomes in at-risk communities.

If parents are demanding schools with good test score impacts, the government’s response should be obvious: let more of these schools open.

Charter schools serving middle class students underperform district schools on state tests 

But not all charter schools are outperforming their peers on tests scores.

47% of charter schools serving middle class students perform worse than similar schools. And only 26% perform better.

So perhaps California should close some of these charter schools that serve middle class families? Research covered in this post shows that schools with negative test impacts tend not to have large positive life outcome impacts.

But here’s the odd thing: presumably, middle class families have a decent amount of information at hand when making school choices. It takes all of two minutes to scan Zillow or Great Schools to get a quick read on the absolute test score performance of any school in the state.

So why are all these relatively well resourced families sending their children to lower-performing charter schools as measured by state tests?

I’m not sure. It would be interesting to focus group and poll them to learn more.

And with regards to closure, while I surely disagree with middle class Californians on many policy issues, I’m not sure that I think I know enough about their children to close schools that have modest negative test impacts but high enrollment demand.

Charter schools don’t exist unless parents want their children to attend them 

One of the best features of charter schools is that they don’t exist unless parents choose them. No one is assigned to a charter school.

So what are we to make of this data where families in living in poverty are choosing schools with positive test scores impacts and middle class families are choosing schools with negative test score impacts?

I think the starting point should be to assume that families, on average, are in a better position to make an informed choice than government is.

Remember, government’s default assignment algorithm is to look at your family’s address and then assign your child to the nearest school. It’s not very nuanced!

My guess is that parent choice will outperform geographic assignment when it comes to finding great fits between kids and schools.

But I do think we should be open to the idea that parents, sometimes en masse, can make mistakes. And, at times, this can warrant government intervention.

Sometimes performance might be an indicator, such as when families keep sending their children to high schools with below 40% graduation rates and /or schools with extremely negative value-add scores. If less than half the kids are graduating, and those that do are barely literate, government should step in.

Sometimes lack of alignment with our nation’s professed values might be an indicator: certain public schools have at times been captured by groups, sometimes religious, that do not teach basic democratic values.

In these cases of significant performance or culture malfeasance, government should consider intervention, ideally by handing over management of the school to a non-profit organization that can achieve better results.

I don’t know enough about individual school performance to know if what’s happening in California with middle class families equates to education malfeasance, but I’m a bit skeptical.

My hunch is that once absolute test score levels surpass a certain floor (as they tend to in middle class schools), families just care a lot about other factors.

Even if I might make a different choice, I don’t know that the situation warrants government intervention.

When government should not intervene 

While it’s difficult to decide when government should intervene, it’s still pretty clear to me when government should not intervene.

When schools have both high demand and high test score impacts with students living in poverty, government should not prevent these schools from serving more students!

California should follow this common sense policy.

Unfortunately, too many school districts do not.

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A Crisis Reveals the Obvious in Washington D.C.

The Washington D.C. public school system (DCPS) has been rocked by crisis over the past year.

First, came the suspension scandal. DCPS schools were lowering their official suspension rates by simply not recording when students were suspended.

Then came the high school graduation scandal. An investigative report showed that at a single school over 30% of the graduates received a high school diploma in violation of district policy. With more honest record keeping, it looks like overall district graduation rates might drop over 10 percentage points, if not more.

Then came the enrollment scandal. An investigative report found that the superintendent, Antwan Wilson, had violated the district’s enrollment policy when enrolling his own daughter in highly sought after school.

Despite these three crises, I don’t think anyone should wave their hands and say nothing good has happened in DCPS over the past 15 years. Things have improved. The gains the city made in NAEP do appear to be real and significant (the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a research study to further examine this question).

But there were always two fatal flaws to the DCPS approach.

The first flaw is that it was obvious that DCPS was never going to be able to turnaround its struggling schools.

The second flaw is that it was obvious that the district was not going to be able to handle leadership succession.

Both of these fatal flaws having nothing to do with any individual leaders in DCPS. Rather, both have to do with the structure DCPS itself.

As I wrote back in 2015, if you don’t fix the structure of DCPS, you’ll never be able to fix DCPS.

The Most Damning Chart on Struggling Schools in Washington D.C.

Recently, I worked with some colleagues to apply the local charter school accountability system to DCPS schools, as we thought the charter system was more rigorous than the DCPS’s system. Here’s what we found for grades pre-K to eight (where publicly available data allows for reasonable apples to apples comparisons).

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There is a stark difference in the number of children attending Tier 3 schools ( the lowest performing schools) in each sector.

DCPS still has nearly 8,000 students stuck in failing prek-8 schools, despite over 10 years of reform leadership.

The charter sector, on the other hand, has replaced nearly all of its struggling schools with much better schools, having closed or replaced over 21 schools since 2012.

The reason for this is simple and obvious: it’s very hard to turnaround yourself.

The DC Public Charter School Board oversees, but does not operate, the non-profit public schools under its jurisdiction. DCPS, on the other hand, both oversees and operates its own schools.

The structure of the charters system in DC makes it easier to to replace struggling schools with better ones. The structure of DCPS does not.

Political Leaders are Selected for Political Reasons Under Political Circumstances 

The DCPS approach, which consolidates power in a central bureaucracy, relies heavily on strong Chancellor leadership. Leadership is of course important to all organizations: charter school organizations also lean on great leaders.

But there is a difference between how DCPS and charter organizations pick their leaders. The DCPS leadership transitions run through a political process, while charter leadership transitions run through a non-profit board process.

This is why it is often so hard for districts to manage superintendent transitions: it’s rare that a single superintendent lasts numerous political cycles, and it is even rarer that multiple superintendents in a row will share a common strategic vision.

Non-profit boards have it easier. While they are not immune from horse trading and politics, their boards of directors are not elected and are less subject to acute external political pressures.

The charter sector is also composed of dozens of non-profit boards. So even if one leadership succession goes badly, the whole public school system won’t suffer.

Am I surprised that DCPS has had three superintendents in two years? No, the history of urban public school systems made this an obvious eventual outcome.

Creating a Stable, Community Driven Public School System 

Fortunately, Washington D.C. is better positioned than most cities when it comes creating an amazing public education system.

Over the past fifteen years, the city has been home to both improving traditional and public charter sectors.

Moving forward, it should take the best of what the city has seen in both sectors and unify this under one public system.

From the charter sector, the city should take the idea that schools do best when they are operated by non-profit organizations, and, when a school struggles, the best thing to do is to let another non-profit school try and operate the school.

Innovative governance models with real accountability can be applied to traditional public schools. Both Denver and Indianapolis already allow traditional public schools to build non-profit boards that are held accountable through performance contracts.

From the traditional sector, the city should take the idea that Washington D.C. residents value neighborhood schools and expanded pre-k; two areas where the district has made great strides. Giving every public school a non-profit board does not mean every school needs to be a full open-enrollment charter school. Neighborhood schools and community  based early learning centers should be part of the fabric of the pubic school system.

Non-profit public schools can make DCPS better. They can give great educators more autonomy. They can create more accountability within the system. And they are best set-up to manage tough leadership successions.

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Did a federal grant to turnaround failing schools in New Orleans and Tennessee work?

Back when I worked at New Schools for New Orleans, we applied for a $30m federal grant to turnaround failing schools in New Orleans and scale the model to Tennessee.

CREDO just came out with a research study on our efforts. Their findings, and my analysis, are below.

The New Schools Were Much Better than the Ones They Replaced 

Here’s what CREDO found when they compared the schools we created to the schools we replaced:

In New Orleans, we replaced schools (“closing schools”) that were at 26th percentile in the state with new schools (“CRM schools”) that performed at the ~33rd percentile in the state at the end of the study.

In Tennessee, schools went from the ~17th percentile to the ~23rd percentile by the end of the study.

To quote the CREDO report: “the CRM schools in both New Orleans and Tennessee showed significantly higher academic growth compared to the Closing schools they replaced.”

Translated into days of learning, these are large effects: “Closing school students experience 63 fewer days of learning in reading and 86 fewer days of learning in math when compared to students in non-CRM schools… students in CRM schools make comparable academic growth to non-CRM students.”

The New Schools Performed About the Same as Other Schools in the City

When CREDO compared the new schools to other existing schools (rather than the failing schools they replaced), they found no statistically significant effects:

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In other words, the new schools that replaced the failing schools performed no better or worse than other existing schools in the city.

On one hand, this is disappointing. Our most ambitious targets included having the new schools be amongst the highest performing schools in the city.

On the other hand, this is still a major improvement: the new schools replaced failing schools and ended up achieving at the same level of most other schools in the city.

Building a System that Keeps Getting Better 

Replacing failing schools with new schools is a process, not a one-time intervention.

Ideally, a subset of the schools you created will do really well, and then, overtime, these schools will continue to grow. The ones that don’t do well will not be supported to do additional turnarounds.

Over the long-haul, gradually increasing the number and scale of high-quality school operators is more important than the average effect of the first wave of replacements.

Here’s what CREDO found across the new schools when they compared them to existing schools:

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 12.11.36 PM.pngIn New Orleans, 50% of the new schools had positive effects in both Math and Reading. This is really positive: half of our turnaround schools in New Orleans achieved significantly better results than existing schools across the city.

In Tennessee, only one school had positive effects in both Math and Reading, though a few other schools had positive effects in only reading.

This makes me optimistic that the school operator base in New Orleans will continue to have the capacity to replace more failing schools over time.

The early results in Tennessee are a bit more worrying on the operator quality front, and the next few years will be extremely important in ensuring that a healthy operator base emerges.

Lastly: CREDO found that replacing failing schools with fresh start schools (that opened one grade at a time) had a higher success rate than whole school turnarounds. My takeaway here is that you need a mature operator base to do a lot of whole school turnarounds, and no city had enough capacity to really do whole school at scale. In hindsight, we should have done more fresh starts and less whole school turnarounds.

Was the Effort a Success?

At the outset of the project, I remember debating with our research partners at CREDO about how to set-up the evaluation.

I argued that we should ultimately be judged on whether or not the new schools we created were better than the failing schools we replaced.

I didn’t think we should be primarily judged on whether or not the new schools were better than other existing schools that weren’t failing.

Yes, we did include language in the grant application that had goals of schools performing much better than existing schools. And as we executed the project we tried to pick school operators that we thought could deliver top tier results. Our highest aspirations weren’t met. This is disappointing, but it does not mean the project was a failure.

Rather, I consider the project to be a positive step forward in improving public education in these cities.

Making Things Better

The result of the project strikes at the heart of what’s so difficult about education reform: our aspirations for our most at-risk children are incredibly high, but making progress in creating better educational opportunities is very difficult.

In roughly a five year period, we replaced failing schools with new schools that were on average 7 percentile points higher in state performance, which translates to an extra 60-90 days of learning per year.

If the process of opening and replacement continues, what is a modest success right now may eventually become a great success.

I hope that this occurs and that New Orleans continues on its impressive track record of increasing student achievement. As a reminder, the federal grant was just one piece of an overall effort that has radically reduced failing schools in the city:

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What will be normal for superintendents in 2028?

Education change happens slowly until it happens everywhere. And then a new normal exists.

Right now, it is normal for superintendents to directly control all the public schools in their city. It also normal for them to fight off educators (either within their system or external charter operators) who threaten this control.

But this is changing. A new wave of superintendents are looking to charter operators to help them solve their toughest problems. And they’re not doing so in light touch ways, like best practice sharing. Instead, they’re handing over control of some of their most struggling schools to charter schools.

Atlanta 

In Atlanta, the superintendent is partnering with the city’s best charter operators to operate underperforming schools in the city.

Here is how one Atlanta high school student responded to her plan:

Omari Hargrove, a junior at Carver School of the Arts, isn’t looking for guarantees.

At a recent community meeting, Carver students spoke about daily fights on campus, gambling at school and classmates more focused on selling drugs, than studying.

“I’m not sure if the changes they’re introducing are the ones they need, but the situation we have now is not acceptable,” Hargrove said.

“Maybe they’ll work,” he added. “At least it’s a plan.”

San Antonio 

The superintendent in San Antonio is taking a similar approach. Texas recently passed a law, Senate Bill 1882, which encourages both superintendents and charter operators to work together to turnaround failing schools.

Denver

In Denver, the district partnered with a charter operator, University Prep, to turnaround a struggling school. A year later, the school posted the highest math growth in the state of Colorado.

Indianapolis 

In Indianaplis, the district utilized the state’s Innovation law to partner with charter operators, and the first wave of schools saw an increase in test scores. One of those schools, while managed by a charter operator (Phalen Academies), was actually led by a group of district leaders who wanted more freedom (Project Restore).

Memphis

Over the past few years, the state, frustrated with local inaction, has forced charter partnerships in Memphis. But last week, the superintendent told the local paper he was willing to lead the partnership effort himself. A locally elected board member also indicated willingness: “As we look at what’s best for kids, we have to look at all options,” she said.

What will be normal in 2028?

That’s hard to tell. But I hope that what we’re seeing from this courageous superintendents becomes the new normal.

A superintendent’s job is to get the highest number of kids in the best schools as quickly as possible.

That’s a job that requires all hands on deck.

Any group of educators who can make things better quickly should be given that opportunity, charter schools included.

Over the coming decade, I hope what we see in Atlanta, San Antonio, Denver, Indianapolis, and Memphis is the new normal.

Is San Francisco progressive?

San Francisco is a thriving city and I love living here. It nearly has it all: great people, a vibrant economy, and natural beauty in all directions.

But there is one thing San Francisco does’t have: a public education system that does right by low-income African American and Latino students.

One of the wealthiest and most innovative cities in the world can’t teach low-income kids to read, write, and do math.

Nearly every other city in California performs better than San Francisco in educating low-income students, and it’s not like most of the cities are knocking it out of the park.

And the worst part of it all is that the fix is not too hard. Within a decade, I bet San Francisco could be one of the highest performing urban school systems in the country.

But I’m skeptical that will occur. The people who control the system do not want it to change.

Traditional Schools Harm Low-Income Students in San Francisco 

San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world. But when it comes to serving low-income African-American students, the city is trounced by other cities across the state.

recent report from Innovate Public Schools provides the details.

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Low income Latino students don’t do much better.

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Charter Schools Help Low-Income Students in San Francisco 

Is there something about low-income kids in San Francisco that makes them impossible to educate?

No.

Charter schools in San Francisco are doing a much better job educating low-income students.

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More rigorous research (quasi-experimental methadology that controls for socioeconomic variables) has also found that charter schools in the Bay Area dramatically outperform the traditional system. This study found positive .2 standard deviation annual effects in math and .1 effects in reading.

It Could Get Better But It Probably Won’t

Cities like Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans are proving that there’s a better way to do public education.

Denver is continuing to deliver results over ten years after its reforms began. Washington D.C. has seen its scores skyrocket on the Nation’s Assessment of Educational Progress. New Orleans achieved amongst the greatest educational gains that the nation has recently seen.

Our team has the privilege of working with cities to make their educational systems better, but I spend most of my time on the road because the San Francisco Unified School Board doesn’t have any interest in the reforms that could make the city’s public schools great.

Unlike the aforementioned cities, San Francisco Unified is extremely unwelcoming to high-quality charter schools.

Instead of partnering with high-quality non-profit charter schools, the school district continues to insist that it will fix itself.

But this will not happen. And low-income kids will keep getting screwed.

So no, San Francisco is not progressive. At least not when it comes to public education.

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Liberia is relinquishing. Is it working? 1st year results are in.

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Over the past few years, Liberia has embarked on an ambitious project to partner with non-governmental school networks.

Even more daring: Liberia’s political leadership is parterning with foreign school operators, some of which are for-profit.

Imagine for a second if, after Katrina, New Orleans political leaders had decided to partner with school operators from Singapore, Finland, and Shanghai.

In Liberia, numerous short-term and long-term risks abound – as do extremely high-potential upsides.

Partnership schools achieved .18 SD gains in one year 

Whatever one thinks of Liberia’s strategy, kudos to them for partnering with school networks in a manner that allowed for randomized control trials. Because schools were randomly selected for partnership, we can get a better understanding on whether or not the providers are delving a better education.

In aggregate, the first year effects were large: students in partnership schools scored 0.18 standard deviations higher in English and 0.18 standard deviations higher in mathematics than students in regular public schools. The authors note: “while starting from a very low level by international standards, this is the equivalent of 0.56 additional years of schooling for English and 0.66 additional years of schooling for math.”

Also, teachers are showing up more often: “teachers in partnership schools were 20 percentage points more likely to be in school during a random spot check (from a base of 40% in control schools).”

And teachers are teaching: “…16 percentage points more likely to be engaged in instruction during class time (from a base of 32% in control schools).”

Results varied by provider

The highest performing operators delivered ~.3 effects!: the Youth Movement for Collective Action (YMCA), Rising Academies, Bridge International Academies, and Street Child.

Second tier (very solid .15 effects): BRAC and More than Me.

Third tier (no effect): Omega and Stella Maris.

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Students receiving 2X learning time

This was incredible to me: “students in partnership schools spent twice as much time learning each week, when taking into account reduced absenteeism, increased time-on-task, and longer school days.”

Costs running a bit high (but to be expected in start-up)

The authors note that operators were spending more per-pupil than traditional schools; while this is a warning sign, I don’t read much into it now, as start-up efforts generally run higher and than smooth out. The exact same pattern happened in New Orleans.

What is the impact on traditional educators and schools?

As in the United States, non-governmental school operator growth impacts the traditional system, which has both programmatic and political consequences.

In an odd twist, the government contracts limited the class sizes of networks, which forced some operators to turn away students who then had to find other schools.

Operators also fired existing teachers, which presumably benefited children but caused adult hardship and risks political blowback.

I predict that these issues will only increase in salience. They require solutions that are both programmatic (government regulation of student equity issues) and political (ensuring that adult incumbents don’t derail positive efforts).

Teacher supply issues may get worse

The researchers note that to the extent that operators were able to recruit better teachers – and that the supply of teachers does not change – operators will be unable to scale and achieve the same effects.

In New Orleans we faced the same issue: we failed to grow high-quality teacher pipelines at the same pace we grew operators, and this caused operator growing pains midway through their scaling plans.

I hope Liberia gets ahead of this.

Is it worth it?

The perennial (and reasonable) question asked in such efforts is always: is it worth it? Is the disruption to families and educators worth the gain?

This question was asked a lot in New Orleans. I (as with the majority of New Orleanians) believe that it was worth it in New Orleans.

But I do think the Liberia case is more complicated, as it involves issues of national institutions and sovereignty.

There are numerous risks to outsourcing school operations to international organizations.

What if you end up in a conflict with the home nation(s) of large operators? What if these operators inculcate undesirable foreign values to your culture? What if the outsourcing of your educational operations slows down the overall maturation of your civil society?

These are hard questions.

My guess is that it is worth it, in that the gains of having a much better educated populace are worth the trade-offs of relying on foreign operators.

But I am not an expert in international development and I have not studied the issue enough to have strong opinions.

All that being said, all involved deserve our praise: the government is trying hard to serve their citizens, the school networks are serving students in extremely difficult situations, and the students themselves are getting smarter.

Here’s hoping the positive results continue.

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]