Category Archives: Politics

A Crisis Reveals the Obvious in Washington D.C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Leaders are Selected for Political Reasons Under Political Circumstances 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating a Stable, Community Driven Public School System 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is San Francisco progressive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional Schools Harm Low-Income Students in San Francisco 

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

recent report from Innovate Public Schools provides the details.

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Low income Latino students don’t do much better.

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Charter Schools Help Low-Income Students in San Francisco 

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

No.

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

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

It Could Get Better But It Probably Won’t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 ways Facebook could help make us better

Before getting to the recommendations, some framing thoughts:

  1. It is impossible to tell how Facebook affected the election. There is too much causal density in who people vote for to point to one cause and say: that’s the thing that mattered.
  2. I think there’s a major danger in saying: “people voted for Trump because of fake news” instead of acknowledging that people voted for Trump because of a combination of cultural and policy beliefs.
  3. Liberals have plenty of fake news of their own. I’ve spent the past 5 years dealing with a constant stream of unscientific articles about New Orleans education reform in papers such as the New York Times.
  4. The research on how people form and solidify opinions is messy, and I think social media gives a chance to run a lot of new experiments rather than assume we know how opinion formation occurs.
  5. I think censorship is almost always the wrong answer, and the line between editorial scrubbing and censorship is very blurry when it comes to a communication platform like Facebook.
  6. Since the advent of advertising driven media, every medium has had to figure out how to balance revenue and legitimacy. Modern fake news has been a problem since the creation of the penny newspaper.
  7. In considering Facebook, I think the first solution set should be to try and figure out how to harness the power of social media rather than curtail it.
  8. Ultimately, it’s not Facebook’s job to make us better; it’s our job.

Recommendation #1: An Opt-In Intellectual Diversity Function

Facebook should create an opt-in intellectual diversity function that harnesses its algorithm to populate a user’s feed with diverse intellectual opinions. This could be done throughout the newsfeed, or opposing viewpoints could be tagged to specific articles.

Overtime, Facebook could track what types of opposing articles are clicked and viewed – and tweak its algorithm to place the most effective type of opposing arguments for each type of person or issue.

Recommendation #2: An Opt-In Share My Story Function

From what I understand, personal posts garner much more engagement than article sharing. And my hunch is they are more effective in making people explore other opinions.

Facebook should create a share my story function that allows a user to give Facebook permission to share a personal story with strangers who have opted-in to the intellectual diversity feature.

Facebook could then share powerful personal stories that provide different viewpoints to its users, as well as track what types of stories resonate most with people of different intellectual viewpoints.

Recommendation #3: An Intellectual Diversity Rating

Facebook should provide the opportunity for each user to see a feed diversity rating score, that gives the user some (imperfect) estimation of the intellectual diversity of her feed.

Recommendation #4: Alternate View Feed Day

Facebook should have one day a year where users can opt-in to receiving a typical daily feed of a user who shares opposite political views.

So for a whole days a user would see the news / articles / etc. that a user from the opposite political spectrum would usually see.

Recommendation #5: Livestream Beer Summits

Occasionally, Facebook could livestream a summit of two people with different political viewpoints engaging in a discussion / visiting each other’s homes / going to a bar / etc.

It could provide a model for what we should all be doing more of: talking to each other.

In Sum

I don’t know if the above recommendations would work or not. Perhaps they would backfire and create more belief anchoring and division.

My major point is that instead of trying to censor social media we should run a bunch of experiments to try and figure out how it might make us better.

Lastly, like most posts, this post was born out of an exchange with friend: thanks to Mike Goldstein for inspiring this post by coming up with recommendations #1 and #5.

Here’s a better framework for thinking about Trump

As I’m reading anti-Trump and pro-Trump commentary, I’m finding very few pieces that fully explore the different possibilities of a Trump presidency.

So I tried to create a graph to chart what I think are three dominant considerations we should be using to understand the president elect.

A Framework for Understanding the President Elect 

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This framework captures 3 primary spectra:

Social Liberalism: Does a leader have respect for people of all races, gender, sexuality, religion, and places of birth?

Economics: Does a leader lean more toward populist economics (which often involves trade protectionism and anti-immigration stances) or globalist economics (which generally leans towards free trade and more immigration)?

Rule of Law: Does a leader behave within the established norms of domestic democracy and international rule of law, or does she lead by greatly damaging democratic institutions and grossly violating international law?

To chart some historical examples, I spent a few minutes trying to plot the last few American presidents and Hitler. I was just aiming to be directionally correct but am in no way trying to argue that I plotted these perfectly.

Each Variable is Very Important, But I Think Rule of Law is Probably Most Important

You could make reasonable arguments for each variable being the most important consideration.

If I had to argue for social liberalism, I’d say that even someone who works within the rule of law can do terrible harm to minority populations.

If I had to argue for economics, I’d say that someone who wrecks the international economic system could unleash untold suffering on the poor of the world.

In arguing for rule of law, I’m mostly arguing from this recent historical fact that so many of the world’s major mass deaths have been caused by dictators, such as Hitler, Mao and Stalin.

This graph is illustrative:

dictators

I’d need to think harder before having stronger opinions on the relative importance of each variable.

The only thing I am confident in is that they’re all important.

When to Build Bridges, When to Join the Resistance 

I think both Trump and Clinton supporters have reasonable grievances about the world.

I don’t think that it’s in our country’s best long-term interest for each side to: (1) argue loudly about their legitimate grievances (2) not listen to the other side’s legitimate grievances and (3) not differentiate between policy differences and threats to the survival of the nation.

I think economics and immigration are policy differences.

I think respect for rule of law is an issue that gets at the survival of our nation.

And I think social liberalism sits between the two, in that it determines who receives the full benefit of the rule of law within our country, which in its most severe form can threaten the survival of our nation (slavery) but in other cases can be solved through the political process (gay marriage).

I think it’s worth trying to build bridges around policy and less severe forms of social illiberalism.

I think it’s worth considering more radical forms of resistance in cases of major threats to the rule of law and severe cases of social illiberalism.

In Sum

Our country is deeply divided about many issues.

It’s important to tease out the differences between these issues, both to understand ourselves and to understand the president elect.

I know that this is a rather unemotional way of trying to understand issues riven with deep emotions.

I’ve felt a lot over the past week – it’s been especially hard to hear stories of children in our schools who don’t feel safe – and I’ll continue to listen to these emotions.

But I also want to try and understand the way forward, and, for me, frameworks help.

Post election reflections

On this blog, I’m going to keep my post-election reflections focused on education, save for one thought: continued progress in the realization of the American dream is extremely important for our nation and the world as a whole, and I look forward to continuing to play a bit part in this vitally important endeavor. I hope you do too.

On to education.

#1: MA and GA Drive Home that Traditional Public School Support is Boosted by Populism 

In Massachusetts, a populist blue state, the charter school cap was not lifted because unions effectively portrayed this expansion as something that would harm traditional public schools.

In Georgia, a populist red state, a state takeover entity was rejected because opponents effectively portrayed the intervention as something that would hurt local public schools.

In populist politics, communications messages that focus on preserving local, traditional public schools appear to be very effective.

Interestingly enough, it’s not clear to me that these results demonstrate a significant antipathy toward charter schools; rather, they seem to indicate a deep protectionist instinct for traditional public schools.

For charters to be successful, we may need to communicate in a fashion that reduces fears that existing traditional schools will be harmed.

#2: In Cities Where Charters are Normalized, Elections are Producing Pro-Reform Results

In New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Oakland – all cities with 25%+ high-performing charter sectors – reforms either held or expanded majorities.

Generally, reformers prefer top-down quick wins like ballot initiatives; however, we have emerging evidence that, in cities with higher charter market share, elected school boards can tip into modestly sustainable pro-reform majorities.

This is more evidence that market share drives everything.

#3 What Will Ideological but Not Constituent Support Deliver? 

The federal government is now fully controlled by Republicans, a party that is highly ideologically aligned with choice and charters.

However, many Republicans represent states without large charter sectors. As such, there is not uniform constituent demand for more charters.

An open question to me is how much Republicans will use this moment to expand thoughtful, sustainable choice reforms.

#4 The Status of Within District Reform will Rise 

Given the populist rise of traditional school protection, reforms that disrupt within districts – such as technology – will likely see in increase in philanthropic support.

In Sum

There is much to be learned by listening to how people express themselves through voting.

It’s a noisy signal, but in a world of communication bubbles, it’s a signal nonetheless.

Only Normal Things Scale

Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I’m tempted to say that I’m trying to make the concept of relinquishment normal.

Right now, it is not normal to let educators operate their own schools; to let families choose amongst these schools; and to transition to government to more of a regulatory role.

Rather, it is normal for the government to directly operate schools; for families to be assigned a school based on their address; and for regulation to be handled by the same entity that is operating schools.

Every Adopter Reduces Psycho-Social Barriers for the Next Adopter 

New Orleans was the first city to build an education system on the aforementioned principles, and it did so in a very abnormal situation.

New Orleans (in so many ways!) is not normal.

Perhaps if 8-10 cities adopt similar principles, then these ideas will become modestly normal.

And then perhaps 10-20 other cities will start pushing that direction.

The more normal it is, the more quickly it will be adopted. Each marginal user slightly lowers the psychological barrier for the next user.

“Vote for Abnormality!” is Not a Winning Slogan 

Most people react negatively to abnormal things. This is why in Massachusetts, the home of the nation’s highest performing charter schools (in Boston), people in the suburbs will likely vote against eliminating the charter school cap.

For people in the suburbs, neighborhood public schools – as well as private schools – are normal. Charter schools are not normal.

When you’re in a referendum, you don’t want to be the abnormal option.

People’s Fidelity to Normality is Much Higher than Their Fidelity to Ideas 

Many people disagree with an idea when it is abnormal and then agree with the idea when it becomes normal.

This, for example, is why I think getting to ~50% charter market share is so important. All of a sudden, charters become normal – and the people who previously did not like charter schools become ok with them.

Other policies such as unified enrollment, unified accountability, the transformation of operators for failing schools…. all these things can become normal over time, as New Orleans has shown.

Abnormal is for the Moment of Disruption, Normal is for Scale

Entrepreneurs who come up with amazing ideas are often very abnormal people; however, to scale their disruption, they generally have to do a lot of normal things, including convincing others that their new idea will become the new normal.

Sometimes they fail to make this transition.

Equally problematic: sometimes people who are trying to disrupt things act too normal. They say they want to change the world, but ultimately they want to be liked… and be normal.

This doesn’t work either.

So you need congruence between your current level of normality and the level of normality that the situation requires for you to be successful.

This can be tricky to pull off.

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?

History

First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.