Category Archives: Hard Things

My response to Freddie deBoer

Freddie deBoer recently commented on my post on educational productivity. Freddie is a rising star in the blogosphere, and his concerns mirror the concerns of many others, so I thought responding to his comment could be of use.

Below, I respond to his critiques. With Freddie’s permission, I’ve also pasted in his full comment at the end of the post. It might be helpful to start there.

I. Do Charters Outperform Traditional Schools? 

Freddie begins:

You’re making the most basic failed assumptions possible in this post. At scale, charters are not significantly different from public schools.

This is true when it comes to all students. But is not true when it comes to disadvantaged students, especially those served by urban charter schools.

CREDO’s urban charter study found the following effects for urban charters:

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 7.39.20 PM

The study also found positive charter effects for disadvantaged populations:

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CREDO’s national study found similar positive effects for disadvantaged populations.

CREDO is the best national quasi-experimental data source we have, and its methodology holds up well in comparisons with experimental data.

To the extent you’re suspicious of CREDO or of quasi-experimental design, Rand also did a national study on charters that looked exclusively at experimental studies. The authors found:

“Consistent with many previous studies that have focused on broad sets of charter schools, we found no evidence that, on average, attending charter schools had a positive impact on student achievement. The estimated impact of attending the average charter school in the study was negative but not statistically signicant after adjusting for the multiple hypotheses tested. However, the average impact of attending charter schools in large urban areas or those serving lower achieving or more disadvantaged students was large and positive.”

In a NBER working paper, Dennis Epple, Richard Romano, and Ron Zimmer offer their summary of charter RCT research:

“These studies have been much more supportive of charter schools with nearly all of these studies finding positive effects—in some cases, quite large effects (Hoxby and Rockoff, 2004; Hoxby, Kang, & Murarka, 2009; Abdulkadiroglu, et al., 2010; Curto and Fryer, 2011; Tuttle, et al., 2013; Wong, et al., 2014)—with only one finding no effect, a study by Mathematica of charter middle schools (Gleason, et al., 2010).”

For what it’s worth, my reading of the Mathematica study (which the above authors say is the only finding with no effect), is that it does find positive math impacts in for disadvantaged students, see pages 70-71,78 in this report. 

Apple, Romano, and Zimmer also provide a good analysis of the pros and cons of quasi-expermintal studies and experimental studies, as well as the trickiness of solving for selection effects.

While none of the evidence is perfect, I think it’s very reasonable to hold the belief that charters are serving disadvantaged students in urban areas better than traditional public schools.

At the very least, I would not call this belief “a basic failed assumption.”

II. Can We Replicate the Success of New Orleans?

Freddie writes:

Charters that show these gains are idiosyncratic examples that receive the benefit of unusual structural advantages and advantages of massive effort, attention, and time from deep-pocketed entities. So you get examples like New Orleans, where an army of do-gooders descended and the entire civic infrastructure was remade top-to-bottom and suggest that can be meaningfully scaled, which is absurd.

I don’t know if the New Orleans efforts can be scaled, but I don’t think the idea is absurd.

Rather, I think we should see if the structural reforms of New Orleans can be applied with success in additional cities.

Very specifically, I think it would be great to get 8-10 cities where:

(1) A majority of the schools are non-profit managed.

(2) A unified enrollment system allows families to easily choose from a variety of schools.

(3) A unified accountability system provides parents information about school quality and leads to governance change in the lowest performing schools.

I view these as the core tenets of the New Orleans model.

Big picture, I don’t understand why we’d dismiss the incredible achievement gains in New Orleans rather than try to learn from them and see if they can work elsewhere.

As a reminder, the New Orleans achievement gains were very large:

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III. Can We Replicate the Success of High-Performing Charter Management Organizations? 

Freddie writes:

Or Success Academy, where teachers churn in and out of the system at something like twice the (already sky-high) attrition rate for teachers, and can be replaced by a never-ending stream of people with Ivy League degrees looking for their first NYC jobs who are willing to work under intensely unhappy working conditions for relatively low pay, and then after a few years move on to more remunerative jobs.
Try that in the Ozark mountains or the Mississippi Delta and see if you can attract that kind of talent. These systems also tend to be filled with hidden selection bias, as was found by Reuters in a huge investigation of the many ways charters cook the books to only admit the students most likely to succeed.

I agree with Freddie that Success Academy might not be scalable outside of New York City (or another major urban area like Chicago or Los Angeles). Freddie points out real potential limitations to their model.

That being said, if Success Academy could provide great educational opportunities to 300,000-500,000 students, I’d be hesitant to dismiss their impact simply because they won’t reach every child in the country.

Success Academy aside, I believe that Freddie is incorrect that successful charter organizations can’t scale.

Take KIPP, which now serves nearly 100,000 students (including schools in the Arkansas Delta!).

Mathematica just completed a rigorous analysis of KIPP and found that “KIPP schools have positive, statistically significant, and educationally meaningful impacts on student achievement, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels.”

See here for their middle school effects:

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And KIPP is not an outlier.

The Charter School Growth Fund, which supports the growth of charter organizations across the country, recently had its portfolio analyzed by CREDO, who found strong effects:

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Charter School Growth’s portfolio serves about 300,000 students and could feasibly scale to over a million students in the coming decade.

Admittedly, charters have not yet, at scale, achieved significant student achievement gains with suburban and rural populations. Maybe one day they will. Charter organizations such as IDEA Public Schools have achieved +.1 effects in places like the Rio Grande Valley.

But even if charter end up not being the right solution for rural areas, why not support the best charters to provide great educational opportunities to millions of disadvantaged students in urban areas?

IV. Are Emerging Choice Markets Working?

Freddie writes:

Meanwhile in places like Detroit, Nashville, Newark, and Washington DC choice programs have failed completely.

I was surprised Freddie made this argument. In CREDO’s study of urban charters, all four of these cities achieved positive charter effects. Admittedly, Detroit’s charter sector is not a shining star, but it is still outperforming the traditional sector.

Here are the charter effects for these cities in Math:

 

And here are the effects for ELA:

 

Again, if you don’t trust CREDO, independent researchers also found that Washington D.C. made meaningful achievement gains over the past decade. This report from the Urban Institute came to similar conclusions. Other experimental research in choice markets such as Denver also finds strong effects.

I really don’t understand the claim that these markets have failed completely. Newark, Nashville, and Washington D.C. are three of the stronger charter school markets in the country.

V. Will Positive Test Score Results Lead to Good Life Outcomes?

Freddie writes:

“Charter” simply is not a condition that can be scaled; it’s not really a consistent condition at all. The fact that you wave your hand and blithely assume that what worked in the totally idiosyncratic case of New Orleans – presuming there’s no fraud going on and that the test score advantages won’t degrade over time, and that we see actual differences in college-level persistence and success, a big question – shows that you’re not a serious broker. You’re an ideologue.

Freddie raises fair concerns about the logic jump that increasing test scores will lead to positive life outcomes.

Raj Chetty has done the deepest work on the connection between test score gains and life outcomes (he found a positive link), but I don’t view this work as conclusive. Similar studies that are focused on long-term outcomes for charter students have found both positive and insignificant life effects.

I view this as an area where we don’t have enough evidence to make strong claims.

If I had to guess, I would say that the early charter movement focused too narrowly on test scores and is now evolving to focus much more on life outcomes, and that, over time, we will see the same success in life outcomes as we have seen in test scores.

All that being said, we may find out that improving student outcomes in K12 just does not translate into long-term life gains.

With regards to whether I’m a serious broker or an ideologue, it’s worth noting that I publicly stated my fears on this issue in a previous blog post entitled: The Current Brutal Reality of Education Reform and Wage Growth.

In the post, I reviewed the disappointing data Fryer found on life outcomes of charter students and ended with the following:

Leaders need to make hard decisions in the face of incomplete data.

Often times, this means relying on some combination of probabilistic thinking, intuition, ideology, and philosophy.

But, at some point, you need to walk away if the data is telling you what you’re doing is not working.

I don’t think one study is enough to walk away from the promise of urban charter schools, especially since they’ve achieved so much on less penultimate markers.  I think there’s a lot more experimentation and research that needs to be done to help us understand if we can translate academic gains into wage growth.

But it’s worth thinking about when you would walk away.

Because if there is no point at which you’d walk away, then what do you really stand for?

I think about this a lot. It’s also in part why I write this blog. Reviewing rigorous research and putting my ideas out there for public critique are attempts to make sure I’m not deluding myself into holding false beliefs.

VI. Conclusion

I believe the available experimental and quasi-experimental data support the belief the charters are doing a good job raising test scores for disadvantaged students.

I believe the work of organizations such as KIPP and Charter School Growth Found support the belief that high-quality charter schools could grow to serve millions of students.

I believe the early results of choice markets in places like New Orleans and Washington D.C. provide evidence that well regulated city choice markets may lead to better results at scale.

I believe we do not currently know if test score gains will translate into positive life outcomes.

Ultimately, those of us working in the educator sector work in a field where very few interventions work. In this sense, I appreciate Freddie’s general skepticism. I think reformers have too often promised too much.

But I think there’s a chance that urban charters and city choice systems can lead to better educational opportunities for millions of disadvantaged students.

So that’s why I do what I do, operating as much as possible with the full awareness that I might be wrong.

____

Freddie’s original comment:

You’re making the most basic failed assumptions possible in this post. At scale, charters are not significantly different from public schools. Charters that show these gains are idiosyncratic examples that receive the benefit of unusual structural advantages and advantages of massive effort, attention, and time from deep-pocketed entities.

So you get examples like New Orleans, where an army of do-gooders descended and the entire civic infrastructure was remade top-to-bottom and suggest that can be meaningfully scaled, which is absurd.

Or Success Academy, where teachers churn in and out of the system at something like twice the (already sky-high) attrition rate for teachers, and can be replaced by a never-ending stream of people with Ivy League degrees looking for their first NYC jobs who are willing to work under intensely unhappy working conditions for relatively low pay, and then after a few years move on to more remunerative jobs. Try that in the Ozark mountains or the Mississippi Delta and see if you can attract that kind of talent.

These systems also tend to be filled with hidden selection bias, as was found by Reuters in a huge investigation of the many ways charters cook the books to only admit the students most likely to succeed. Meanwhile in places like Detroit, Nashville, Newark, and Washington DC choice programs have failed completely. Which do you think will be more likely to be scaled by hundreds of thousands of schools and millions of teachers?

“Charter” simply is not a condition that can be scaled; it’s not really a consistent condition at all. The fact that you wave your hand and blithely assume that what worked in the totally idiosyncratic case of New Orleans – presuming there’s no fraud going on and that the test score advantages won’t degrade over time, and that we see actual differences in college-level persistence and success, a big question – shows that you’re not a serious broker. You’re an ideologue.

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.

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 comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

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.

Advice -> Endorphins or Habit Change?

There are many inspirational posters on many walls across the world.

Most of these posters do not change the behaviors of those who purchase them, frame them, hang them, and look at them.

Rather, most of the posters deliver a sequence of endorphin boosts that very quickly fade.

In a short matter of time you pass the poster and you feel nothing.

Why Do People Seek Advice? 

Most people who seek advice are not that serious about changing their behavior.

They want to change their behavior, and they want to feel the endorphin rush of wanting to change their behavior, but they do not want to put in the work that behavior change requires.

People like to feel that they can change.

People like to get advice on how to change.

People do not like the process of change.

If you are seeking advice, you’d do well to be aware of why you are seeking advice.

If you are giving advice, you’d do well to clearly articulate what it will require to implement this advice.

Or, at the very least, understand an advice session for what it is: a form of human banter that makes everyone feel good at the time but has little lasting effect.

What Advice Have You Received that Has Become a Habit? 

It’s worth reflecting on what advice you have received that has become a mental habit, both to reflect if you’re doing the hard work of behavior change, as well as to understand why some advice leads to change and some does not.

Here are some pieces of advice that have truly change how I think and act:

Nobody promised us anything (my father): As my father was dying from Parkinson’s disease, I asked him if he was sad, and he responded: nobody promised us anything. I think about this phrase a lot – as well as a sister phrase that I’ve incorporated into my thinking: the world is not ordered for my own happiness. When I am feel frustrated, indignant, or consumed with self-pity, I say this phrase to myself and, in the moment, reorient my mindset as best as I can, which is often a good amount.

Workout and mediate everyday (self-help books): Basically every self-help / self-improvement book I’ve read and have hammered home the importance of exercise and meditation. And for good reason! It’s taken time, but I’m not at least 5-6 days a week for both. Working out and meditation have become long-term habits.

Lead congruent organizations / teams (Nancy Euske, NSNO management team): After a few initial failures, I am now very deliberate about leading teams and organizations that have an explicitly aligned mission, strategy, culture, structure, tactics, people management systems, and goals.

I’m sure there are other pieces of advice that have become habits – but these standout to me in that they have greatly impacted my life, five years ago I did none of these three with any regularity, and I continually track my behavior to ensure the habits stick.

The Biggest Mistake I Made with Habits

For years, I would read books for knowledge rather than behavioral change. For some types of books (novels, history, etc.) this is fine. For many other types of books (business, self-help, etc.), this is not fine.

But I get high off learning new information, which is dangerous. I used to rip through dozens of business and self-help books a year – and while this made be an interesting dinner party companion (or terrible depending on your conversation tastes) – it rarely led to behavior change.

Now, I only read a business or self-help book if: (1) I have the time to read it deliberately enough to draw out behavior change possibilities; and  (2) I have the time to practice and implement the behavior changes.

The Ability to Adopt New Habits is an Incredible Competitive Advantage

Most people will spend over forty years working.

Over the course of a career, being able to adopt a few important habits a year will provide an incredible competitive advantage over people who do not adopt important habits.

Growth mindset and intellectual curiosity are amazing mindsets – but it’s the ability to form habits that unleashes their true power.