Category Archives: Hard Things

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]

CREDO’s school closure research validates portfolio and golden tickets

 

CREDO just came out with a study on school closures. Matt Barnum gives a good write up in Chalkbeat (and continues to far surpass NYT and WAPO in his analysis of complicated research).

Achievement increases when you close low performing schools and students transfer to better schools 

Overall, the research increased my belief in the idea that great schools should expand and failing schools should be closed or transformed (the basis of the portfolio model).

My only reservation with this study is that it defined low-performing schools by absolute performance rather than growth in achievement; however, student achievement still grew when students moved from lower to higher absolute performing schools, so perhaps many of the low absolute schools were low growth schools as well.

The research adds to the body of evidence that shows: if you…

(1) Close lower performing schools;

(2) Increase the number of high-performing schools;

(3) Ensure students from the closed schools get into the higher-performing schools; then

(4) Educational opportunity will increase.

See below from CREDO on the student achievement effect of a student transferring from a closed school to a superior school.

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One other thing: this type of analysis doesn’t capture the positive effect of the failing school no longer existing; a city implementing these strategies should see additional gains from no new students ever having to attend the failing school.

“Golden ticket” policies can ensure students attending closed schools get into better schools

Cities that use unified enrollment systems can easily guarantee that students leaving closed schools have access to better schools by a “golden ticket” policy. This policy gives students exiting closed schools first access to any open seats in high-quality schools in the city.

While I find the policy name “golden ticket” to be crass, it’s a policy that can do wonders for educational equity.

Too often students in failing schools are shuffled from one underperforming school to another; a golden ticket policy can prevent this.

Should we support increased school closures in majority white communities?

Numerous commentators pointed out that schools with +80% minority students were more likely to be closed than schools that had lower minority enrollment.

Most took this as a sign of inequitable treatment toward minority communities.

However, a growing body of research indicates that school closure increases educational opportunity so long as student have access to better schools. And although I wish this wasn’t the case, my hunch is that majority white communities likely have a higher concentration of better schools than your average minority community: this means that school closures are likely to be even more effective in majority white communities.

My guess is a lack of closures in majority white communities is leading to reduced educational opportunity.

School closure is incredibly hard

While I believe that thoughtfully implemented school closure policies will benefit children, I know that closing schools is hard for students, families, educators, and politicians.

But sometimes doing the hard thing can help students.

And a growing body of evidence is pointing to the idea that a well implemented school closures is one of those hard things that can ultimately make things better for students and communities.

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Lastly: thinking of everyone in Houston right now. Really hoping that friends, colleagues, and everyone else in city are ok.

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Could the Earth ever become a Dark Forest?

In the trilogy The Three Body Problem, Liu Cixin builds his novels around the idea that the universe is a Dark Forest – i.e., when you’re moving through a dark forest and you hear the rustling of leaves, the optimal reaction is to shoot first.

More fully, the Dark Forest theory of the universe is built upon these first principles:

  1. The primary goal of each civilization is to survive.
  2. There are finite resources and space in the universe.
  3. Civilizations tend to expand.
  4. Civilizations tend to advance technologically.
  5. You have no way of truly knowing whether an alien species is peaceful or hostile.

So, if you detect an alien species – what do you do?

Under the Dark Forest theory, you kill them.

The reason you kill them is that even if they’re not hostile now, at some point they will want to survive, need more sources, and have advanced technology – which means they might just kill you.

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I have no idea if the Dark Forest theory accurately describes the first principles of the universe.

But it made me think about something we might be able to understand with greater precision: could the Earth ever become a Dark Forest?

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Right now, the Earth is not a Dark Forest largely because of nuclear deterrence.

North Korea might very well recognize that the existence of the United States will likely bring down their regime at some point, but they can’t act on this knowledge because we could respond to any nuclear attack with an attack that wipes them out.

Even for more robust nuclear powers, each side must live with the fact that a massive nuclear war could destroy all of humanity.

Culture also acts against the Earth becoming a Dark Forest. The scaling of large societies has been in part been sustained through cultural evolution: we now identify with nation and world instead of just kin, which, presumably, partially mitigates the 5th aforementioned principal (lack of trust).

But these conditions are not immutable: so it’s worth considering, how could one sided deterrence, assured mutual destruction, and trust…. end?

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Unfortunately, it’s not hard to describe a scenario:

  1. There is a shortage of an important resource that is necessary to a nation’s survival, which makes securing that resource more important to a nation’s survival than the benefits of trade.
  2. This shortage, as well as the already significant cultural differences between existing rival nations (such as USA and China), erode trust.
  3. Technology advances in a manner that allows a nation that launches a first strike to kills all other humans, not allow for a return strike, and preserve the attacking nation.

How about this: there’s a water shortage that fuels nationalism, that leads to rising animosity between populous nations, and then one of them develops a synthetic virus that instantly kills all humans that haven’t received the vaccine – a vaccine that the attacking nation released in their own water supply the week before launching the attack.

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I’m not in expert in these issues, so maybe I’ve gotten much wrong.

But if the universe can become a Dark Forest, the Earth probably can too.

If this is true, we’ll need a deterrence system for whatever set of weapons come after nuclear warheads.

But what are the odds that for every new weapon we develop we’ll also near simultaneously have an equally strong deterrence system?

They don’t seem high.

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Please do let me know where my logic is off.

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:

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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.

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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.