Category Archives: School System Design

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.



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.



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


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.


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.


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


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?


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Orleans Parish vs. Jefferson Parish

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About five year, I got into an argument with a friend.

He argued that the reforms taking place in Jefferson Parish (a large, diverse suburb outside of New Orleans) would lead to more gains in student achievement than the reforms in New Orleans.

I told him that I was very skeptical of the Jefferson Parish reforms, which were mostly predicated on district improvement.

“Chartering isn’t the only way,” he said.

I told him I had two main objections to the Jefferson Parish reform efforts.

First, I think entrepreneurship (great educators launching and scaling schools) is a more effective reform strategy than best practice adoption (superintendents trying to have their staffs adopt good practices).

Second, I think that structural reform (chartering) is more sustainable than management reform (changing district practice).

Four months ago, a union backed reform bloc won a majority on the Jefferson Parish School Board, displacing the previous reform board, which was led by the business community.

The new chair of the school board, Cedric Floyd believes things are changing:

The early going has been “1,000 times better than the first two or three months of 2011,” he said, referring to the initial period of the former School Board.

Time will tell what happens in Jefferson Parish.

But I stand by my earlier predictions.

I don’t think best practice adoption is very effective or sustainable.

I do think allowing great educators to open their own schools is effective and sustainable.

This is why I believe in relinquishment, not reform.

Is India Going Portfolio? Will it Work?


I just read India School Education Vision 2030, a report from the Central Square Foundation (CSF).

It is well worth reading.

I don’t know enough about Indian education to have opinions on the content, but many pieces of information stood out.

India’s Private School Enrollment Share Could Increase from 44% to 67%

CSF predicts that two thirds of Indian students will attend private schools by 2030.

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India has Very Weak Educational Infrastructure 

Lack of Assessment: India seems to have neither reliable sample based testing (such as NAEP) or student based testing (such as our state assessments). As such, the government has little ability to monitor educational outcomes.

Teacher Training: India currently has 16,000 entities training teachers, most of which appear to be of low quality; the bar for entering them is also very low.

Leadership: Nearly half of India’s schools do not have principles, and those that do are often led by non-instructional administrators.

India is Experimenting with Regulating Equity

Currently, India requires private schools to withhold 25% of their enrollment for poor students, with the costs being covered by the government.

This is a novel approach, though it appears that implementation is very uneven.

Getting From Here to There

CSF notes: “With private schools becoming the dominant providers of education by 2030, the Government’s role will need to shift from that of a provider of education to that of a strong and responsible regulator.”

Similar language is used by advocates of the portfolio / TUSSOF / relinquishment / empowerment model.

CSF also calls for a host of reforms around equity, teacher development, curriculum, and technology.

I have no idea whether the above reforms will be adopted or whether they will work if they are adopted.

But while it’s natural for us to get caught up in what’s happening in New Orleans, Detroit, or Philadelphia – it’s also worth us paying attention, and caring about, the billion people living in India.

No One Knows if Charter School Districts Will Work

A couple of impetuses for this post:

1. This Politico Pro article: The New Orleans Model is Praised but Unproven.

2. An idea from Taleb’s Antifragile: it is much easier to predict what will vanish than it is to predict what will take it’s place.

3. Cowen’s First Law: “There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).”


Here’s what I think we know:

1. The creation of a charter school district has led to significant academic growth in New Orleans, though absolute scores remain low.

2. New Orleans leaders have made plenty of mistakes along the way.

That’s really about it. And this is not to say that we know (1) with a 100% certainty. The New Orleans reform effort was not a controlled experiment. But nearly all of the data leads to this being a reasonable conclusion.

I would also venture this: not a lot has worked in achieving significant academic gains in urban school systems that serve at-risk students.

So the fact that New Orleans students have achieved such gains is very important.


Here’s what I hope we will know ten years from now:

1. Other cities can also achieve academic growth by becoming charter school districts.

2. New Orleans can become an excellent school district because of becoming a charter school district.


I often struggle to balance: being an advocate for an idea, attempting to implement an idea, and studying whether the idea is working.

In my work, I do all three very often, and it’s hard to do all three well at the same time.

When you’re advocating for an idea, it can be difficult to objectively study it, as your emotions get caught up in the communications effort.

When you’re implementing an idea, it can be difficult to (honestly) bullishly advocate for it, because you understand how hard the work is.

When you’re studying an idea, it can be difficult to advocate for it, because you understand how complicated the data is.


In writing longer pieces I am often most successful at being disciplined: I am clear that the idea of charter school districts working is only a hypothesis, and that the goal of the next ten years of work should be to determine if this hypothesis is true.

On twitter, I’m probably the least disciplined, though I’m working on this.

One last note, most people who actually work in New Orleans are pretty honest and disciplined in saying that the gains are real but they’re not good enough; we’ve made a lot of mistakes; we’re still trying to get better.

I think this mentality will take the city far.

Catch-up Reform vs. Innovation Reform…. What the United States Can Learn from Other Nations


I just read this Tyler Cowen interview of Jeffrey Sachs.

It is well worth reading, and I’m excited for the Cowen interview series to continue.

Sachs on Catch-up Reform, Innovation, and Differential Diagnosis 

Two excerpts from the interview.

First, Sachs covers the two drivers of international economic growth: innovation and catch-up.

…when you look at development, there are at least two fundamental drivers, not just one. The one that they talk about is innovation, and innovation as being a fundamental driver of growth. There’s a lot of truth to that in the history of the world.

But there’s a second fundamental aspect when we look out in the world and say, “Who’s doing well? Who’s doing badly? Why?” and so forth. That’s what is sometimes called “catching up.” The phenomenon of catching up is very different from the phenomenon of forging ahead at the front of the technology horizon.

When you take that simple distinction, it helps to explain a lot of the post-1960 question that you’re asking. The most successful countries in the world in the last 50 years have been basically the East Asian economies and Southeast Asian economies.

Sach’s main point is that growing when you’re at the head, middle, or back of the pack all require different strategies. Moreover, it’s not really helpful to compare growth rates of countries that are at the frontier of innovation and those that are simply executing catch-up growth.

Sach’s also presses hard on differential diagnosis of problems rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:

That’s what I mean by differential diagnosis. Why it’s so annoying to me, the one explanation fits all viewpoints. Because now I’ve seen a lot of places, a lot of crises, a lot of challenges. One of the things that I discovered was how poor our profession is at times in having that sense that the problem that you saw over there is not the same as the problem that you’re seeing here.

Education Reform: What Catch-Up Growth Can We Achieve? 

The United States is roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to international rankings of educational attainment.

As such, there may be some catch-up growth we can undertake. However, when figuring out what best practices to adopt and which to avoid, we need to understand how our own situation may be different than other countries.

I view (1) implementing rigorous standards and assessments and (2) increasing incoming teacher quality to be the two highest potential catch-up strategies. Many (though not all) of the world’s top performing educational systems excel in these areas (admittedly, causation is difficult to prove).

In some form or another, we’ve begun to make headways in both these areas: assessment rigor is rising and incoming teachers are achieving at higher levels.

I’m less bullish on two other potential catch-up strategies: bureaucracy improvement and a culture of extremely hardwork.

The United States is an incredibly large nation; it consists of many levels of government; and it suffers from overly politicized and often ineffectual government bureaucracies. I don’t see us becoming Singapore anytime soon. Additionally, unlike some of the top-performing Asian nations (South Korea, Japan), we do not have a national culture that reveres education and long hours of studying.

Rather, our nation’s core strengths are more around entrepreneurship, problem solving, and (at least at one time) pragmatism. As such, I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot of resources trying to optimize the thousands of school board / districts or attempting to change our national culture.

We Don’t Need to Limit Ourselves to Catch-up Growth

Given our nation’s resources and talent, we also don’t need to simply confine ourselves to catch-up growth strategies. We should innovate as well.

I think we’re well positioned to innovate in the following areas:

Governance: Given the low quality of our bureaucracies, and our national culture of entrepreneurship, I think we can be a leader in alternative governance structures. Charter schools, vouchers, course choice, Tiny Schools, etc. – many of these are delivering results, and others hold promise.

Technology: In many industries, the United States has been a world leader in technological advancement. Ideally, we will be able to translate this progress into gains in educational technology.

Non-Elite Higher Education: The United States has been an international leader in higher education for decades, but this is mostly driven by our top research universities. I think that a combination of governance and technology innovations can increase the quality of our non-elite  universities and vocational programs.

Of course, both governance and higher education face heavy regulations and strong incumbents. So innovation may be difficult to come by.

But, all things considered, I’m optimistic on these fronts.