Category Archives: Research

Does anyone know why Chicago children are getting smarter?

If you just read the headlines, you might suspect that Chicago’s public schools are in a terrible tailspin. Part of this is the noise of big city politics. Part of this stems from cloud of violence that hangs over the city.

But Chicago has improved on academic test scores more than most other cities in the country. Rather than one of the worst, Chicago is one of the best.

A recent report by Sean Reardon and Rebecca Hinze-Pifer found that between 2009 and 2014:

“This [student achievement] growth rate [of Chicago] is higher than 96% of all districts in the US. Among the 100 largest districts in the country, the average growth rate from third to eighth grade is 0.95 grade equivalents per year; Chicago has the highest growth rate between third and eighth grade of any large district in the United States.”

The authors admit that they don’t know why this occurred.

I can’t prove why Chicago kids are getting smarter, but I have a hypothesis.

What’s Been Going on in Chicago Public Schools? 

One way to try and solve the mystery of why Chicago children are getting smarter is to look at the district’s previous major initiatives.

As this report details, between roughy 1990 and 2010 there were three overarching eras of reform in Chicago: the decentralization era, the the accountability era, and the do a lot of things era.

The authors are very careful to not attribute a causal relationship between reform eras and outcomes. The reforms were messy and not rolled out in an experimental manner – so fair enough.

But in this post I’ll try and make my best guess on what was causal and what was not.

The Decentralization Era

The decentralization era was best known for the creation of Local School Councils. This reform gave local councils real control over decisions about how schools were run. The councils were made up of school leadership, parents, and community members.

The councils always seemed like a terrible idea to me. It’s basically taking all we know about charter schools (good central offices, scalable instructional programs, governance matters) and doing the exact opposite!

Not surprisingly, research on the reforms found that the councils had some positive effects on advantage communities, but were least likely to improve schools in low-income communites. Communities with low social capital didn’t gain a lot from ad-hoc and poorly constructed local boards.

I’m very skeptical that the decentralization era and school councils were the root cause of later gains.

The Accountability Era

In 1995 Mayor Daly put in Paul Valls as the superintendent (I later worked with Paul when he was the superintendent of the RSD in Louisiana). Vallas, who did not have deep instructional expertise, used test driven accountability to try and make things better.

New tests, promotional standards, and interventions for failing schools were all put in place.

The reforms had better impacts for low-performing schools; the researchers noted:

“This was the only era to show large improvements in the lowest- achieving schools. However, the patterns in test scores in the lowest-performing schools suggest that some of the improvements resulted from instruction that was aligned specifically to the high stakes tests.”

This matches other research on accountability reforms: you tend to see gains in the lowest preforming schools, but the high stakes can cause narrowing of the curriculum.

 

The Do a Lot of Things Era

Arne Duncan came in after Vallas, and he instituted a lot of reforms.

Arne launched 100 new schools, implemented internal district instructional and curricular reforms, overhauled school leadership pipelines, and placed a deep focus on on-time high school progression.

Perhaps the biggest initiative of this era was the Renaissance 2010 project, which launched about a 100 new district, charter, and contract schools between 2005 and 2010.

Unfortunately, no one has conducted a full evaluation of the program. Someone should do this!

Two interim research reports came out around 2010. One study, which only included a few years of data from the early Renaissance cohorts, found that the new schools performed about the same as the existing district schools. The other study was inconclusive.

Not much help from the research community.

A lot of work was also done on school leadership. The Chicago Public Education Fund, in partnership with the district, invested heavily in school leader development, placing bets on both district based and non-profit providers.

The lastest research I could find on these programs found that “results indicate that one-year learning gains in elementary and high schools led by Fund-supported principals were not different than those in other similar schools.”

Another major reform, another mediocre result.

All told, researchers found that this era produced more gains in high school than elementary schools, but wrote: “while the effects of the dominant policies of Eras 1 and 2 are largely understood, much research remains to be done to understand both the positive and problematic effects of the policies in Era 3.”

Not super helpful, especially since this is the era that preceded the large gains in test scores that occurred after 2009.

What About the Charter Sector? 

CREDO published a report on Chicago charters that covered test scores from 2010 to 2012, which is right in the middle of the period where Chicago saw a lot of gains.

The study found +.01 effects in reading and +.03 effects in math. These effects amount to about a month or so of extra learning per year, maybe a bit less. Given Chicago’s relatively small charter market share, and the modest size of these positive effects, it’s unlikely that charters themselves accounted for the 2009-2014 gains.

A more recent study, which just looked at charter high school performance from 2010-2013, found much larger effects: +.2 effects on ACT related tests and much higher college enrollment rates.

These are large effects, but they are for high school only. The study lauding Chicago’s gains only covered grades 3-8.

So WTF Happened in Chicago to Make Kids Smarter?

To summarize: Chicago improved its test scores more than any other big city in the country, and researchers really don’t know why.

So why are Chicago kids getting smarter?

Here’s my guess: competition and accountability lifted all boats.

When you put accountability in place (the Vallas era) and then launch a 100 new schools (the Duncan era) you get a city where school leaders know there are consequences for failure and the best of the new schools begin to raise the bar for what’s possible.

This theory helps explain why the Renaissance schools and charter effects were a bit muted. In the studies on these reforms, researchers compared the new schools to existing schools. So if the existing schools were improving due to increased competition, you would not see large relative effects for the new schools.

I can’t prove that accountability and competition caused the results, but in many sectors accountability and competition make everyone better. It also fits stories we’ve seen elsewhere. In place like Denver and Washington D.C. increased competition led to all boats rising in the public school system.

If you have a better theory, let me know.

What Should Chicago Do Now? 

Here’s another tough question: if it was accountability and competition that caused Chicago’s gains, how should this impact Chicago’s future strategy?

Since 2002 (while the district was getting much better!) Chicago enrollment plummeted from 440,000 students to 370,000 students.

This means that there are lot of under-enrolled schools in the district and the city might have to go through another round of painful closures.

This also it means it’s harder to push the very reform (opening new schools) that might have driven Chicago’s previous gains in achievement.

So what should the city do?

Reasonable people can surely disagree, but I would continue to create new schools, albeit in a different fashion.

First, I’d open new schools in the areas where population is increasing. Chicago is made up of a lot of neighborhoods, and not all neighborhoods are losing children.

Second, I would do some replacement work. Instead of closing all the under-enrolled schools, I’d try and select some neighborhoods where there’s enough child density that you could imagine families coming back to the public schools if there were better options. I’d launch replacement schools in these neighborhoods.

There are clear drawbacks to this strategy. Politically, it’s hard to justify opening schools when you’re in the midst of closures. Programmatically, it’s hard sell to get the operators of new schools to open up in neighbors with shrinking enrollment.

But I think it’s the best thing for children.

Lastly, I might also try and launch some diverse by design schools.

In a city as diverse as Chicago, it’s sad that it’s schools are so segregated.

The Last Word

Chicago’s Chief Education Officer, Janice Jackson, recently gave her take on why things are better.

Her list: pre-k, better professional development, better curriculum, competition from private and charter schools, and clear accountability standards.

In her own words:

“I believe the level of transparency we have provided around what a quality school is has been transformational in this district.”

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.

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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The KIPP pre-K study doesn’t tell us if KIPP pre-k works

Mathematica just published a study on KIPP pre-k. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (where I work) funded the study.

The study was well designed and asked a very important question: does high-quality charter pre-k provide benefits above and beyond simply attending a  high-quality charter elementary school?

The policy implications of this question are important: if high-quality charter pre-k adds to the achievement of students who attend high-performing elementary charter schools, policies that support both early child funding and charter school growth could accelerate achievement gains.

However, if attending a high-quality charter pre-k has no effect beyond the impact of simply attending a high-quality charter elementary school, then our limited public resources may be best spent on expanding high-quality charter elementary schools and not devoting as much resources to pre-k.

In other words, it’s really important to understand if:

KIPP pre-K + KIPP elementary > KIPP elementary

Unfortunately, due to small sample sizes as well as sample attrition, the researchers were not able to answer this question.

While the effects of KIPP pre-K + elementary were larger than the effects of KIPP elementary, these results were not significant.

The researchers write:

In reading, the magnitude of the positive impact was larger for the pre-K cohort than the kindergarten cohort on both the Letter-Word and Passage Comprehension tests administered in grade 2 (by 0.20 and 0.06 standard deviation units, respectively). Neither of these differences is statistically significant; however, the study did not have sufficient power to detect differences of this magnitude. Thus, they may be suggestive of some additional benefit in reading resulting from an offer of admission to KIPP pre-K, above and beyond the impact of an offer to KIPP in kindergarten.

In math, however, the impacts for both samples are identical, suggesting no additional benefit of KIPP pre-K beyond the impact of a KIPP elementary school.

Below you can see the estimated (non-significant) impacts:

 

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So, for now, we still don’t know if KIPP pre-k adds any value over KIPP elementary school.

This is no knock on KIPP or the researchers, it’s just the consequence of the limitations of working with small sample sizes that are subject to attrition.

That being said, I do think some of my friends are playing a little fast and loose in over interpreting this study, and I think we all need to be honest about the fact that we don’t yet know if KIPP pre-k “works.”

Phase II of the charter and choice research agenda is extremely important

In a recent post, I summarized much of the research on charter school and high choice cities.

The short of it: there’s a strong body of evidence that urban charter schools outperform traditional schools, and a nascent body of evidence that thoughtfully implemented high choice cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

It’s worth taking a moment to celebrate this: the research on urban charter schools is an impressive body of work built on twenty years of studying the incredible efforts of educational entrepreneurs. It’s wonderful to see these schools working.

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But as charters scale, additional questions need to be studied.

More specifically:

  1. Do urban charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomes?
  2. What happens to traditional schools when charter schools expand?
  3. What happens to students when under-enrolled traditional schools eventually close?
  4. What happens to cities that transition to majority charter systems?

A few recent studies have shown that charter school students achieve better long-term life outcomesthat charter school expansion can improve traditional schools; that student attending schools that are closed actually benefit from the closure so long as good new schools are being continually opened; and, as noted in the previous post, that majority charter cities can deliver strong achievement gains.

But there are also studies that indicate the opposite. Charter students in Texas did not have greatly improved life outcomes; students in Baton Rouge did not increase achievement after their schools were closed; and cities such as Detroit continue to struggle despite high charter penetration.

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Personally, I most care about questions (1) and (4). If charter schools end up delivering better life outcomes, and majority charter cities work, I’d be willing to accept some interim negative effects of charter expansion and school closures. But I understand that the latter effects could cause hardship for families, and I’m heartened to see early examples that show that charter expansion can be coupled with gains for all students.

So here’s to holding out for the best scenario: I truly hope that phase II of the research agenda shows that charters increase life outcomes, that charter school expansion and failing school closure benefits all students, and that majority charter systems deliver benefits for all students.

Initial research indicates that this might be possible, which is really exciting.

Does it matter if charter schools make traditional schools better?

A new study found that traditional schools in New York City improved when charter schools opened up in the near vicinity. See this Chalkbeat article for coverage.

The effects were small for neighborhood impact (traditional schools improved +.02 SDs) and larger for co-locations (traditional schools improved +.06-.09 SDs).

What is the value of charter schools?

Charter schools could help students in two ways: (1) directly serving students and (2) increasing the performance of other schools.

I don’t believe that #2 must be true in order to support charter schools. The very fact that charter schools help the students they serve could be enough to warrant support.

An even more complicated question: what if charter schools increased the performance of the students they served but decreased the performance of traditional schools?

If, like me, you believed non-profit operation of schools should overtime supplant direct government operation of schools, then you still might support the expansion of charter schools. The negative impact of charter growth on traditional schools, while painful, could be a price worth paying if more children were benefitted by the new system over the long-haul.

Be careful how you justify your opinions 

The reason I make this point is that I don’t think we should tie the value of charter schools to their impact on nearby traditional schools.

While this impact is something we should understand – and if in some instances there are negative impacts we should we work to reduce them – ultimately, the fact that their might be a better way to do public education should be our Northstar.

Building the new system is more important to children than protecting the old system.

But hopefully we continue to find more evidence of win / win

That being said, this study is good news: it’s pretty amazing that New York City has grown a high-quality charter sector and that this sector has helped improved traditional schools.

Hopefully future studies will show the same.

But they might not. And expanding great public charter schools might still be the best thing for children.

So we should be cautious in justifying the existence of charter schools in how they impact traditional schools.

Ultimately, their highest and best use is likely to be in the creation of a better way to do public schooling at scale.

Personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology

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I just got back from vacation, which was a great time to read the The Three Body Problem science fiction trilogy, a wonderful series that revolves around the protoganist using first principles thinking to negotiate with an alien species.

Upon return, I read this Rand report on personalized learning, which was funded by the Gates foundation. The report covers a small set of schools in the early years of implementation, so best not to draw too firm of conclusions.

The report found:

  • Charters that adopted personalized learning strategies saw a +.1 effect in math and no statistically significant in reading.
  • District schools (very small N) saw no achievement gains.
  • Charter schools implemented personalized learning strategies with more operational fidelity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the authors noted:

In this theoretical conception, schools that are high implementers of PL [personalized learning]  approaches would look very different from more traditional schools. In practice, although there were some differences between the NGLC schools and the national sample, we found that schools in our study were implementing PL approaches to a varying degree, with none of the schools looking as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict.

So in this sample, charters outperform traditional schools (thought by a lesser margin than urban charters as a whole outperform traditional schools); charters execute better; and the schools themselves don’t look radically different than traditional schools.

Hence the title of this post: personalized learning is a transformative idea without a transformative technology.

Without a technological breakthrough, the current personalized learning efforts will, at best, lead to modest improvements on the execution of common place ideas (using data to drive instruction, executing leveled small group instruction, investing children in goals, etc.). School will look the same and be a little more effective and pleasant for all involved.

This is fine and the world is in many ways built on modest improvements.

But for personalized learning to live up to its hype (as well as to its philanthropic investment), it will need a technological breakthrough.

Instructional platforms might be the first breakthrough, but even here I think the primary effects will be more around scaling great school models and content rather than deep personalization.

The crux of the issue is this: computers are simply not as good as humans in coaching students through instructional problems.

Your average person off the street remains a more effective grade school tutor than the most powerful computer in the world.

Until this changes, personalized learning will never realize its promise. The problem is one of technology, not practice.