Category Archives: Governance

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

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Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

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Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.

What Happens When What Works for Children Doesn’t Feel Good?

Closing schools does not feel good: it’s painful for families, educators, and politicians.

But closing schools, and opening new better schools, can dramatically help low-income children.

Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a child is for her school to close.

Closing Schools Led to a +.3 SD Gain for Elementary Students in NOLA 

In New Orleans, Tulane researchers found that closing schools and creating new better schools led to very significant achievement gains:

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Elementary students who attended a failing school started .1 SD behind their matched peers – two years later, these same students were .2SD ahead of their matched peers.

This +.3 SD impact is higher than the impacts of most educational interventions, and it equates to closing about 33% of the black-white student achievement gap.

You Don’t Have to Harm Existing Children for the Sake of Future Children

What’s incredible about these results is that the students whose schools were closed increased their student achievement.

Before seeing this data, my guess would have been that closing schools slightly harms existing students but is much better for future students who get to attend a better school without going through the disruption of closure.

But the NOLA data indicates that it’s possible to help both existing and future students, which should increase your belief in the benefits of school closure.

You Should Not Close Failing Schools and Send Children to Other Failing Schools 

In Baton Rouge, school closure did not lead to positive effects. This seems to be because these students enrolled into other failing schools after their original school was closed.

 

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For school closure to work, a city needs to either have open spaces in existing higher-performing schools or be opening new high-quality schools.

There are Good and Bad Ways to Close Schools

School closures are hard, but they can be done with respect. Families deserve to know why their schools are being closed; families should get support (and preference in unified enrollment systems) in finding a better school; and political leaders should ensure that empty school buildings are put to good use for the community.

Unfortunately, in many cities, political officials do not close schools thoughtfully. Instead of being honest with families about the poor performance of the school, they let failing schools linger for year until enrollment dwindles and the school folds academically and financially.

It is Difficult to Scale Something that Causes Political Pain

It is unclear to me whether or not deliberate school closure will scale. Reforms that cause political pain tend not to do well over time.

However, opening new great schools need not be politically painful, which bodes well for continued charter growth.

Of course, continued charter growth can lead to the closure of failing schools – and this is exactly why charter moratoriums have some political support.

Charter moratoriums have the potential to reduce pain for adults even as they inflict pain on children.

Can New Orleans Continue to Close Schools? Should It?

Over the past few years, academic performance has stagnated in New Orleans:

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During this time, there has also been a reduction in school closure activity.

So here is an interesting question: has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans ate up most of the low-hanging fruit of closing schools, or has the stagnation in performance been caused because New Orleans has slowed down on closing failing schools?

At this point, I’m not familiar enough with the data to have strong opinions.

But I do worry that New Orleans, especially as it moves toward more local control, may stop using one of the strategies that has proven to dramatically improve the achievement of its students.

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

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

I would choose the Netherlands.

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

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

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

What a remarkable way to end the education wars!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A right is a fundamental, a program is not.

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

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5 Dominant Theories in Education Philanthropy

It is important for funders, entrepreneurs, and policy leaders to understand the dominant theories of change in education philanthropy.

Funders should be clear about what they believe, as well as understand why other funders hold different beliefs.

Entrepreneurs should seeks funds from aligned funders and be pushing foundations to align their theories to what’s actually happening on the ground.

Policy leaders should be evaluating, debating, and challenging funders on how their theories might be improved – and calling out when the theories are simply wrong.

I see five dominant theories in education philanthropy; they are detailed below, with some minor commentary on areas of agreement, admiration, and concern.

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#1: Teachers! 

Theory: The most effective way to increase student achievement is to improve teacher recruitment, preparation, development, and evaluation.

How to Identify these Funders: These folks often start their sentences with “research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor” and end their sentences with “as Finland and Singapore have shown.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: In my work in cities across the country, few high-quality charter schools are satisfied with teacher preparation at colleges of education. Moreover, colleges of education have done a poor job of developing a knowledge based around effective teaching. Improvements in these areas (if feasible) would be of great use.

Concerns: I think this theory’s greatest flaw is that teachers are in fact not the most important factor. As I recently wrote, I’m highly convinced that school operators are the most important factor. An over emphasis on teachers may come at the detriment of a focus on operators.

#2 We Need Better Products

Theory: Innovation in products (schools models, software, platforms, etc.) will radically improve the student learning experience.

How to Identify These Funders: You’re in Silicon Valley talking to a 29 year old billionaire who begin his sentence with “factory model” and ends his sentences with “disruption through exponential growth.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: I’m bullish on much of this theory of change. I’m extremely excited by many new school models (see Silicon Schools portfolio), software (Zearn, Dreambox, etc.), and platforms (Alt School, Summit). Education reform has a history of not being end user focused, and the consumer oriented discipline of this crew is welcome.

Concerns: I worry that these funders underestimate the power of regulatory change in creating the conditions for better products. The “we don’t need more charter schools we just need to scale Summit” ethos is dangerous, as Summit will inevitably not be the pinnacle of education delivery. If the product folks will shy away from necessary regulatory battles because these battles are not as fun as creating new products, we will have far fewer great education products.

#3 Turn the Battleship 10 Degrees 

Theory: If you don’t focus on the where the kids are at now, you’re going to lose a generation of kids while you build all these great products / charter schools / etc – minor improvements in big systems matter.

How to Identify These Funders: When you go to pitch them they begin by presenting you with a 90 slide ppt deck which begins with “district proof point” and ends with “teachers really, really do love VAM.” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: Most students in this country do attend traditional public schools, and the regulatory policy framework governing these schools – especially in areas such as standards and assessments – is worth trying to get right.

Concerns: Outside of a few key areas (such as standards and assessments), I’m skeptical that over the long haul many of these reforms (such as teacher evaluations) will work or stick. And even if they do stick the political opportunity cost is so high that they will have to achieve major impacts to warrant the cost.

#4: Social Justice 

Theory: Radically increasing educationally opportunity will require significant improvements in racial justice, economic inequality, integration, criminal justice, and healthcare (including early childhood services).

How to Identify These Funders: The Bernie Sanders lapel pins. I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: It’s been exciting to watch a new wave of reformers who believe in this theory and also believe you need to push on in-school reforms as well; for too long, many of the most vocal leaders of this theory were paradoxically nihilistic about making schools better (teachers can’t improve student achievement! pay teachers more!). Given the obvious importance of these social issues, I’m eager to watch how these leaders make the reform movement better.

Concerns: When it comes to actual policy making, I sometimes find that these leaders have a somewhat naive belief on the ability to improve districts, as well as an under underappreciation for how hard it is to scale effective social services.

#5: Governance! 

Theory: The governance of public education is the root cause of most of our system’s ills.

How to Identify These Funders: They start their sentences with “there was this groundbreaking voucher study that gave 14 kids a $600 stipend” and end their sentences with “Freedom!” I kid but it’s true.

What I Agree With: Most of it. I believe that will we see increased educational opportunity and, yes – freedom – by allowing educators to start and run schools, as well as giving parents the right to freely choose amongst these schools. And the only way this will occur is if we overhaul how we govern schools.

Concerns: There’s a ton of internal debate within the governance community about how to best regulate these systems, and I have concerns about all the most popular models (vouchers, education savings accounts, charters, portfolio, etc.). The tension between innovation and equity is one I struggle with here, and I’m eager to watch more experiments unfold.

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All right, this was just a quick run down. I’m sure I’m missing a dominant theory or two.

And I admit that I cheated by lumping in early childhood with social justice, but 5 theories seems tidier than 6.

Lastly, I think this is less of an issue of “one of these theories is true and the rest aren’t” and more of a case of resource allocation.

In a world of limited time, talent, and money – what should we focus on?

 

Why Not Mayoral Achievement School Districts?

A few states have now passed Achievement School Districts, which usually involve the state being able to takeover the bottom 5% of schools in the state (or something like that).

On one hand, states action provides certain benefits: states are often buffered from local politics and they can act as a central authorizer for statewide charter expansion.

On the other hand, state actions violate desires for local democracy. This has surely been an issue for state action in New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Newark.

So why not allow mayors to operate Achievement School Districts?

A state could pass a law that allows the mayor to charter any school (and facility) that is located in the city and performing in the bottom 5% of the state or city.

This to me seems far better than regular mayoral control, which presumes that the mayor will be able to operate a large urban educational system (I’m skeptical).

In Los Angeles, Rhode Island, and Indianapolis mayors have some variations on this policy; but, to my knowledge, none act as pure Achievement School Districts.

Why is no one trying to do this? Is it a bad idea? What am I missing?

School Choice Protects Against the Tyranny of Local Majorities

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The blogosphere gained a great voice yesterday: Justin Cohen launched a new blog. I’ve known Justin for years and admire both his intelligence and humor.

In his first post, Justin commented on my post, Value Tensions in Education Reform; he writes:

That said, after years of working on the ground, particularly in and with communities of color, I have come to view the dismissal of local democracy as equally noxious to the debate. The big problem here is that somehow we have arrived at a point wherein placing value on student achievement results is mutually exclusive to respecting the voting rights of African-American communities. There is no education reform in a world where the values of voting rights and student achievement are in conflict, for it forces communities to balance their current sovereignty against their children’s future. That is a fight that neither side can win, nor should want to fight.

Some thoughts:

1. Justin’s argument, I think, is that I was erroneously placing the values of student achievement and local democracy inapposite to each other. While I do think they are tensions between the two, the specific point I was making here was about the tension between voting (electoral power) and choice (control of tax funds). I wrote: “I view local choice as a much more effective democratic power than local voting.”

2.  When it comes to where to vest educational authority, I’m probably more of a pragmatist than Justin. Justin is right to point out that moving authority to the state level can dilute the voice of African-Americans, in that African-Americans may have local majorities but be statewide minorities. But if there is a history of African-American children being harmed by one governance structure,  and a new governance structure shows promise of reversing this trend, then I’ll generally be open to experimenting with this new governance structure.

3. I imagine there are middle ground solutions. For example, having an elected, local charter school board allows for both local democracy while eliminating the monopoly power of the traditional district. Paul Hill and Ashely Jochim’s new book points to other possible solutions.

4. Another way to think about this as school choice being a check against the tyranny of the majority. What if I happen to live in a city where the school board elections keep on being won by leaders who fail to deliver high-quality schools? If I’m rich, I can opt out. If I’m poor, I can’t opt out. My child has to attend a failing public school.

5. In many cities, the school board (the representatives of the majority) actively fights the expansion of school choice, both by enforcing neighborhood zoning and by denying the expansion of charter schools. They do this despite their historical inability to turnaround failing schools.

6. If I live in a city where leaders who protect the monopoly keep winning elections, then my major hope, in a democracy, is that another governance entity intervenes. In our country, this will either be the county, state, or federal government.

7. In an ideal world, local communities would always look after the interests of all their citizens. History has proven that we don’t live in an ideal world. In this sense, I don’t believe the voting rights of local communities should always be held sacred; rather, I think we should have checks and balances between different levels of government, so as to protect those who might be harmed by majorities.

8. I should have made this the main point of my previous post: It’s not that I’m against local electoral power, I’m just against leaving this power unchecked. In public education systems, alternative governance models and school choice provide an extremely important check on local school boards.

Justin, do you agree?