Category Archives: School System Design

Will America Ever Have Integrated Schools?

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All else being equal, I think it would be better if public schools were integrated. I find the individual and societal rationales for increasing integration to be very compelling.

However, I do not understand how America will achieve integrated public schools in the next few decades.

If others see a realistic path to integration, I’d love to better understand these arguments.

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Here is why I am skeptical that we will achieve school integration over the next few decades:

White Families Don’t Want to be in the Minority: As recent research demonstrates, white families want to send their children to schools where they aren’t a signficant minority. Most major urban education systems are 75%+ minority, so the math simply doesn’t work. You can’t scale schools with significant white enrollment when white families only make up a small minority of students.

White Families Won’t Send Their Children to Poor Neighborhoods: I’m skeptical that, at scale, white families will bus their children into poor neighborhoods. This means integrated schools can only really be located in either gentrifying or wealthier neighborhoods. It seems (rightfully) unfeasible that cities will stop operating schools in poor neighborhoods – yet having schools operate in poor neighborhoods will prevent integration.

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In short:

  1. If your policy solutions goes against the desires of the vast majority of white people; and
  2. You need white people to participate in your solution; and
  3. Even if you get your policy passed, white people can escape the policy through moving to a nearby town or opting-out of the public system; then
  4. You’re in for a long, hard battle.

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All of this being said, I spend most of time working on a strategy that most people think will not scale, so I’m very sympathetic to reformers trying to change the world against tough odds.

But if you’re trying to change the world you need to be able to tell a story of how you might succeed – and, to date, I haven’t been able to understand this story for school integration.

But this might simply be my own ignorance. If anyone can point me to writings that better tell the strategy story, I’ll eagerly dig in.

The Answer is 6.7 Miles. What is the Question?

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The question is: how far, on average, would a family send their child to attend a school that is in the highest category of the state accountability system compared to a school in the lowest category of the state accountability system?

This is from a recent report on the DC public school system. The analysis, while useful, isn’t perfect in that it only includes families who utilized the enrollment system, but it does add to the emerging literature on the revealed preferences of families that participate in transparent enrollment systems.

 

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Here’s another answer: it increases racial integration.

The question is: does DC’s unified enrollment system increase or decrease racial segregation?

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Shockingly enough, assigning families to neighborhood schools that are zoned by property values is not a great way to decrease segregation.

 

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Answer: Unclear.

Question: Do parents care about a school’s academic growth (as opposed to absolute test scores)?

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Interesting but not shocking. Parents probably care a lot about peers and status.

Also interesting, this seems more true of low-income families:

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This raises an interesting question for policy makers: given that growth more accurately measures a school’s impact, should they design grading systems that prioritize growth (as DC’s charter framework does) even though low-income parents might care more about absolute scores?

Or perhaps not – maybe low-income families aren’t considering the growth based performance framework because the government is hiding this information:

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One last answer: Families who aren’t assigned to a school in the lowest performance category, as well as the politicians and superintendents who seek their favor.

The question: who loves neighborhood schools?

It remains shocking to me that public leaders in cities such as Oakland are vehemently opposed to unified enrollment on the grounds that such systems will undermine public education.

The only thing a unified enrollment system undermines is the privilege of those who benefit from institutional racism and widespread income inequality.

 

 

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

This is the Business Community’s Greatest Educational Mistake

Crain’s Chicago Business just put out a list of 5 Big Ideas for Chicago’s Troubled Schools.

While surely well intentioned, I thought the ideas were terrible.

Here are the five ideas they proposed in their five day series:

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To sum up: Crain’s thinks that Chicago Public School can be fixed through better management.

Their strategies focus on reorganizing the bureaucracy, developing leaders, and using data in more sophisticated ways.

I do not think that better management will lead to sustainable gains in student learning.

At best, better management will lead to modest improvements that are constantly at risk of being undermined via political instability.

I believe that structural change is a much better strategy for reform.

By structural change, I mean letting educators operate schools via non-profits, allowing families to choose amongst these schools, and ensuring that government regulates for equity and performance.

Evidence from New Orleans and urban charter schools across the country provide some evidence that this strategy can work. Though, admittedly, it’s not a slam dunk case by any stretch of the imagination.

Much remains to be proven.

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I do find it odd that the business community thinks that government monopolies will run better if these bureaucracies simply adopt business best practices.

Given that these practices are not a secret, the business community needs to ask the question: why isn’t the government already implementing these practices?

The most likely answer is: structure.

The source of the business community’s error, I think, is that at heart they are organizational leaders and not policy makers. Their instincts are operational and not structural.

For the same reason corporate CEOs probably wouldn’t make good Fed Chairs, the business community seems to have a lot of weak ideas about educational policy.

All this being said, business communities are vitally important stakeholders for education reform, and the goal should be outreach, not rejection.

Perhaps, over time, business leaders will further realize that the success of business is not solely due to their own management genius; rather, it is the structure in which businesses operate that explains some of their impact.

Education policy leaders can surely learn much from the business community, but these lessons are probably best captured by sound analysis of industries and regulation and, on average, not by listening to business leaders themselves.

With the New ESSA, We’re Still Plugged into the Matrix

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A great education leader who lives in Houston once said to me: “as long you’re worrying about state test scores, you’re still plugged into the matrix.”

His point: so long as public schools are held accountable via government tests, the incentives for educators will be about doing well on those tests.

If you believe performance on these tests is a useful measure of learning, then staying plugged into the matrix might be a good thing.

If you feel that parents, schools, universities, and employers are best suited to develop measures of learning, then you probably want to get out of the matrix and align incentives around different outcome measures.

In the long run, I think it’s probably a good idea to leave the matrix, so long as leaving the matrix is accompanied with a shift towards relinquishment, whereby educators can run schools and families can choose from these schools.

However, as long as we’re going to stay in the matrix, I think the two most important things are ensuring that the matrix is:

1) heavily weighted towards academic growth (rather than absolute scores) and;

2) that it identifies and acts on bottom performing schools and subgroups (where research indicates accountability helps the most).

Given that much discretion will be left to the states, time will tell if this matrix is a better than the previous matrix.

But either way, have no doubt about it: we’re still plugged into the matrix.

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas – or Not?

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Nevada’s legislature just passed legislation to launch the nation’s most expansive Education Savings Account program.

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Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recently wrote an article in the National Review entitled: “The Way Forward for School Choice — It’s Not Vouchers.”

What is the way forward according to Gobry? Education Savings Accounts.

He writes:

But the bottom line is that true school choice involves not just your choice of school, but your choice of schooling. Vouchers would change what a school would look like. K–12 spending accounts would change what schooling would look like.

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We don’t know if Education Savings Accounts will work. They might or they might not. But I’d like to find out.

So my advice to leaders in Nevada is simple: beware of fuck-ups that will derail the program.

Perhaps the greatest threats to deregulation are high-profile mishaps that turn public opinion against the effort.

While there’s much I like about Education Savings Accounts, it’s not difficult for me to come up with a story where Education Savings Accounts are a total disaster.

Leaders in Nevada need to understand this. They need to sweat implementation. They need to protect against worst case scenarios.

Even the most ardent libertarians should understand that policies are not judged by their potential or actual utility; they are judged by the theater of public opinion.

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Here’s some details of the funding of Nevada’s Education Savings Account program:

  • For children with disabilities or students from families with incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($44,863 for a family of four), students will receive 100 percent of the statewide per-pupil, or around $5,700.
  • For families with incomes exceeding 185 percent of the federal poverty level, the funding amount is 90 percent of the statewide average basic support per pupil, or around $5,100.

The funding can be used for just about anything education related, including:

  • Tuition and fees at an approved private school;
  • Tutoring or other services provided by a tutor or tutoring facility that is a participating entity;
  • Tuition and fees for a distance learning program;
  • Fees for any special instruction or special services if the child is a pupil with a disability;
  • Fees and tuition for a college or university in Nevada if that student utilizes those expenses for dual credit.

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Another way to think about the roll-out of an Education Savings Account program is that is a race between educators and charlatans.

Charlatans can move quickly. They can create tutoring programs with fancy websites, a great sales team, and a terrible product.

Educators, especially in an immature market without provider capacity, will move slower. It will take time for educators to become entrepreneurs, to take risks, to iterate their way into creating education products that can work under the new policy regime.

My strong prediction is that over the long-term educators will create incredibly innovative methods of schooling that can harness the flexibility of Education Savings Accounts.

But if they lose the race to charlatans, they might never have the chance to create these products: public backlash could kill the program; consumer stickiness could make it very difficult to recapture market share; weak information could make it difficult to distinguish between good and mediocre products.

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Another way to think about Education Savings Account is that they pit consumer irrationality versus government inefficiency.

I’ve had many, many conversations with parents about education and they are often very wrong about issues where there is a strong research base that points in one direction.

I’ve also witnessed many, many school districts that make incredibly poor decisions about resources, time, and instruction.

In the short-term, there is no Nirvana here. This is, in part, why I’ve been drawn to charters: they allow for both educational expertise (charter founders) and choice (families selecting schools).

However, charters are still a tightly regulated and narrowly defined educational vehicle, and I understand their limitations.

This is why I’m excited about Education Savings Accounts.

Over time, I’m fairly confident that families will become better consumers faster than government monopolies will become excellent providers of education.

But you’re fooling yourself if you think either side is starting from a great place.

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To summarize the above: regulate your deregulation.

Nevada has a chance to be a part moving our nation forward by creating the educational sector of the future.

But they need to get the early years right.