Category Archives: Regulation

Charters growing in your city? You have 5 options.

Charters schools continue to scale in urban areas. In many cities, charters serve over 30% of students.

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In 44 cities charters serve over 20% of students.

These 44 cities, as well as many others in the future, will have to evolve their educational systems to govern a mixed portfolio of school types.

What options are available to these cities? Here’s five, some of which will be much better for children than others.

1. Implode (Detroit) 

In Detroit, the school district responded to charter growth by bankrupting itself. It lost enrollment, took on debt, and continued its academic and operational dysfunction.

In failing to respond productively to charter growth, the district hurt students and cost taxpayers nearly a billion dollars.

2. Compete (Washington D.C.)

In Washington D.C., charters now serve nearly 50% of the students. During the past decade of charter growth, the district responded by becoming perhaps the highest performing urban school district in the nation.

The district lost nearly half its students and radically increased its performance.

The district didn’t really partner with charters, it just stepped up its game.

3. Coordinate and Collaborate (Denver)

Denver Public Schools responded to charter growth by coordinating with the charter sector.

For much of the past decade, it gave charters facilities to grow in neighborhoods where more good schools were needed. The district also set-up a unified enrollment system that made it easy for families to choose easily between district and charter schools.

While there have been some bumps along the way, for the most part the district has supported the best charters to expand and has closed the worst charters.

4. Blur the Lines (Indianapolis, Camden) 

A few years ago, the Indiana legislature passed a law that allows for Innovation Schools, which are authorized by the district, have many of the autonomies of charters, are governed by non-profit boards, but still sit within the district’s enrollment and accountability reporting.

With its Renaissance Schools, Camden has done something similar: Renaissance Schools are more tightly managed by the district, but still retain most of the autonomies of charters schools.

In both Indianapolis and Camden, the district has co-opted the best of the charter model while still maintaining a tighter form of local oversight and control.

5. Govern (New Orleans)

In New Orleans, the district responded to increasing charter growth by relinquishing its operational duties and transforming into a regulator.

Rather than operate schools, the district sets performance targets, monitors for equity, and annually opens great schools and orchestrates the transformation of failing schools.

This has led to unprecedented student achievement gains.

Which Way to Go? 

While I think the last option (govern) is the best way to go, cities have also seen academic growth by competing, coordinating, and blurring the lines.

These cities are the reason I’m skeptical of people who argue that charter growth will hurt traditional public schools.

There’s an emerging group of cities who are proving this clearly doesn’t need to be the case.

I’m hopeful that their successes will be replicated much more often than not.

Why don’t we have a 10x better school?


There’s a Silicon Valley mantra that your need new product needs to be 10x better than the incumbent in order for you to displace them and have a shot at a market monopoly.

Uber, for example, is a 10x product. It vastly better than taxis on so many dimensions (price, easy of use, consistency, service, etc.).

In education, it’s unclear to me that we’ve built a schools that are 10x better than the median traditional district school.

We have built schools that are 10x better than failing urban schools, and it’s no surprise that this is where the entrepreneurial sector has seen so much success.

Why haven’t we built a bunch of schools that are 10x better than an average school?

I’m not sure, but some reflections below.

1. Educators are trying to be 10x at the wrong thing 

Great tech companies usually initially succeed because their technology – not their operations – is 10x better than their competitors.

Often times, technology can be built by smallish group of highly talented people and then scaled at little marginal effort or cost.

So far, school operators have not been able to replicate this model of technological advancement and scale. This way of thinking is not in their DNA. They are still trying to squeeze 10x improvements out of areas such as program design, human resources, and operations.

It will be interesting to see if Summit, Alt School, Khan Academy and others can utilize a 100x tech backbone to scale an instructional program that, over time, evolves into a 10x better school.

2. There’s no profit motive

Perhaps. With companies like Bridge Academies, we are seeing interesting attempts at 10x breakthroughs in the for-profit international market.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of for-profit K12 and university operators in this country, and they aren’t launching 10x better schools that are displacing government and non-profit operators.

3. The education sector is over-regulated

Perhaps regulation is stifling innovation.

I’m sure that this is at least partially true, but the most in demand private schools are not very innovative. Rather, they tend to be highly selective, academically rigorous, extracurricular rich, and culturally strong.

And they also cost $30,000 a year.

So, to date, the private side of things is not exactly delivering a bunch of breakthrough innovations.

Maybe an expansion of education savings accounts will unleash some 10x products, but it’s hard to say this with great confidence.

4. The industry culture is risk averse 

Education may be attracting and retaining professionals who are generally not willing to take the risks needed to achieve 10x products.

In some sense, given that children are involved, this culture is to some extent warranted.

But maybe it needs to be loosened up a bit.

5. This is (mostly) as good as it gets

Not everything can be made better. The fork I ate my dinner with today is not that much better than a fork from the 1970s.

Perhaps this is about as good as schooling gets.

My guess? 

I don’t yet have opinions that are strong enough to warrant action beyond the work I’m already doing.

But I want to keep thinking about this.

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


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

I would choose the Netherlands.


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

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

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

What a remarkable way to end the education wars!


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

A right is a fundamental, a program is not.


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

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The Folly of Voucher Advocates?


A new study just came out showing that the Louisiana voucher program had negative effects on student achievement.

It’s one year of data on a new program, so I would caution against any grand proclamations on the usefulness of vouchers. There’s a much richer literature from which one can draw conclusions.

Perhaps more interesting is how voucher advocates reacted.

Jason Bedrick’s piece – The Folly of Overregulating Vouchers – criticized the Louisiana program for:

  • Not allowing tuition in excess of the vouchers.
  • Not allowing private schools to use selection criteria for admitting students.

I feel like I’m missing something.

The logical extension of Jason’s argument is that an all voucher education system would lead to a public education system where all schools would be allowed to reject students based on wealth, academic performance, and behavior.

Is this right?

Either voucher proponents have very different views of equity than most citizens, or they don’t really view vouchers as a replacement model for the current public education.

I’m curious – which is it?

Overall, I’m sympathetic to lowering barriers to entry (you have a crazy idea that parents will sign up for, go for it) and to reducing test based accountability (you and families think there’s a better way to measure school performance, go for it).

I understand the risks involved with this type of deregulation, but I think it’s worth trying and seeing what we learn. I don’t know if it would work, but it might, and the potential the upside seems high.

I also think there are things you can do to solve for equity (significantly weighting vouchers for at-risk students), that will lead to higher performing private schools enrolling hard to serve kids.

But, ultimately, I’m not ok with taking the public out of public education.

A system where every school can systematically discriminate based on wealth is not one that I want to be a part of.

Is this is where the voucher movement is heading, count me out.

If, on the other hand, the voucher movement is really about innovation, entrepreneurship, and family empowerment – then count me in.

Lastly, I have a ton of respect for people on all sides of this debate, so if I’m mischaracterizing anyone’s views, I’ll update the post.

But, admittedly, I found some of my voucher friends making arguments that, to me at least, were pretty unconvincing.


The Parable of the 3 Blacksmiths


During a time long ago and in a kingdom far away, there once lived three blacksmiths.

All three blacksmiths worked under their lordship, Sir Tuda.

Sir Tuda was a benevolent lord. He wanted his blacksmiths to be as productive as possible, both so they and the kingdom could prosper.

Sir Tuda knew the old adage  – “a kingdom is never better than its blacksmiths” – and he took it to heart.

Unfortunately, Sir Tuda was not schooled in public policy, so instead of issuing a proclamation on his own, he wisely approached his top blacksmiths and asked them how to increase production.

“Tell me what you need from me, and I will make it so,” he told the blacksmiths.

The first blacksmith said: “I need autonomy! If you give me the freedom to run my shop the way I desire, I will increase production!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

The second blacksmith, wanting to outdo the first blacksmith, said: “I need autonomy too! But I also need a board of directors to guide me!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

The third blacksmith was actually not yet a full blacksmith. She was only an apprentice and she would not have even been invited to this meeting but for the fact that her boss was sick with the plague.

She like both of the requests that had already been mentioned, but what she really wanted was to start her own blacksmith shop.

So she said: “I want autonomy! And I want a board of directors to guide me! But I also want a charter to open up my own blacksmith shop!”

Sir Tuda said: “Well then it is so.”

Five years then passed and much changed, including the death of Sir Tuda, who was killed by the Kingdom of the Strategic Inconsistency, which had a long history of invading kingdoms, even those run by great lords.

So what happened to our blacksmiths?

The first blacksmith, who had asked for autonomy, did see a spike in production for two years, but when Sir Tuda died, the new Lord took away the autonomy and production decreased back to its previous levels.

The second blacksmith, who asked for autonomy and a board of directors, increased his production a modest but statistically significant amount; moreover, his board of directors protected him from the new Lord, so he was able to maintain his production increase.

The third blacksmith, who asked to be able to start a new blacksmith shop, gain autonomy, and be overseen by a board of directors, saw her production skyrocket. The young blacksmith had been experimenting with a new innovative method of blacksmithing, and it was only once she got her  own shop that he was able to implement his new method. And, like the second blacksmith, her board of directors protected her from the new Lord’s top-down blacksmith policies.

Lastly, and oddly enough, the new Lord kept on trying to prevent the third blacksmith from expanding even though her shop was so successful. The new Lord kept on muttering, “you’re stealing from me” even though all the blacksmith shops equally benefited the health of the kingdom.

But, by organizing and mobilizing her consumers, the third blacksmith was able eventually open up ten more highly effective blacksmith shops, which made the kingdom the number one in production in the world, even surpassing the Kingdom of Finland (I swear it’s true).

Wise readers will see the moral of this story.

Blacksmith autonomy is useful but fleeting.

Blacksmith autonomy coupled with non-profit governance will lead to modest but important improvements.

Blacksmith autonomy coupled with non-profit governance coupled with entrepreneurship can transform the kingdom.

What’s the Best Way to Attract Great Teachers: Labor Market Regulation or School Level Decentralization?


The Case for Professional Licensure Regimes

Generally, I think professional licenses are only necessary in cases where (1) it is difficult for consumers to gauge the quality of service (2) the cost of error can result in very serious harm (3) and the license is a good proxy for quality.

In medicine, you can make decent (though not air tight) argument that these conditions apply.

The Case Against Teacher Licensure Regimes 

I don’t think teaching meets these requirements, especially considering that licensure (especially master degree requirements) have not seemed to be a great proxy for quality. Moreover, I think parents and students can probably identify the worst teachers (who can inflict the most harm) in a school. Admittedly, judging between average and excellent might be more difficult.

In Louisiana, the only requirement you need to teach in a charter school is a college degree. While this means Bill Gates couldn’t teach in the state, I think a four year degree requirement probably doesn’t restrict too many potentially great teachers, and the lack of licensure requirements means that teachers don’t have to jump through meaningless hoops to be in the classroom.

I’ve generally felt that a four year degree was all we needed for licensure.

The Case For Teacher Licensure Regimes

However, there is an another argument to consider. Creating more sophisticated barriers to entry could (1) create a regime where licensure requirements effectively screen for what makes a great teacher (2) or, simply though selectivy, make teaching a higher status profession, which thereby increases the caliber of people who are drawn into the profession.

The Case Against Licensure Regimes

You might grant that the best licensure regimes could potentially lead to there being more effective teachers.

But you also might say: I’m pretty sure that, over time, any licensure regime will be either poorly designed at the outset, become outdated quickly, or be corrupted by inside interests; i.e, look what good masters in education have done us.

You might argue: we should leave it up to schools, and not the government, to determine who is a great teacher. As long as truly hold schools accountable, they, over time, will best be able to determine what makes a great teacher.

Data from New York

This study just came out. They authors find:

Since the turn of the 21st century, however, a number of federal, state, and local teacher accountability policies have been implemented toward improving teacher quality over the objections of some who argue the policies will decrease quality. In this paper we analyze 25 years of data on the academic ability of teachers in New York State and document that since 1999 the academic ability of both individuals certified and those entering teaching has steadily increased. These gains are widespread and have resulted in a substantial narrowing of the differences in teacher academic ability between high and low poverty schools and between white and minority teachers. We interpret these gains as evidence that the status of teaching is improving.

The report attributes this to regulation, not the economy:

To bolster the evidence that teacher accountability policies drove the turnaround in the average academic ability of teachers, we examine and subsequently rule out the competing hypothesis that these trends could perhaps result from changes in the characteristics of the teacher labor market such as the size of the market or salaries. For example, as salaries increase, the quality of the teacher supply should increase. Similarly, if the market demands fewer teachers, schools should be better able to restrict their hiring to the higher end of the ability distribution. While these labor market changes (themselves influenced by the macroeconomic cycle and declines in enrollment) are likely behind some of the changes in academic ability, they are probably not the dominant driver.


I’m still spending time with the study, so I might get some stuff wrong here:

1. There’s a case to be made that, in NY, regulations drove up the average academic performance of teachers entering the profession.

2. I don’t view this as a slam dunk case. When considering economic factors, the authors seem to focus more on the teacher labor market and recessions rather than how technology and globalization might be reducing the number of middle class jobs available (and thereby pushing higher-performers into teaching). But I might have this wrong.

3. Additionally, as the author’s note: “academic or cognitive ability is one of the few observable teacher characteristics prior research has shown to be positively and consistently (though not strongly) associated with student achievement.” So the regulations might have caused in increase in teacher academic ability which is positively but not strongly correlated with teacher performance.

3. Are all these regulations worth it? It’s hard to say. Especially when you consider an alternate world: what if NY had instead passed a bunch of laws on school level accountability (with charter autonomies and real consequences for failure) and totally deregulated teacher licensure. This is what happened in New Orleans, and my guess is that teacher academic performance rose more in New Orleans than it did in New York. Someone should do a study on this.

4. I think the researchers should have considered these different policy regimes, rather than just studying the New York policy regime in isolation.

In Sum

Given the choice, I’d choose (1) effective charter school autonomy and accountability with labor market deregulation [NOLA model] than (2) ineffective school level autonomy and accountability with labor market regulation [NY model].

If this choice wasn’t on the table, I might choose (1) ineffective school level autonomy and accountability with labor market regulation rather than (2) ineffective school level autonomy and accountability with labor market deregulation.

I’m torn on whether I’d want (1) effective charter school autonomy and accountability with labor market regulation over (2) effective charter school autonomy and accountability with labor market deregulation.

Much to think about.