Category Archives: Structural Reform

Ignoring educational productivity is immoral

I. The Morality of Productivity 

What if we knew a way to increase educational opportunity at no additional cost?

The benefits would be enormous. We could give more children the education they deserve.

And, by not having to increase educational spending, we could spend these saved tax dollars on families in need, or paying off government debt, or keeping money in the hands of working families.

Increasing educational productivity is one of the great moral issues of our time.

Unfortunately, increasing educational productivity in our country has been enormously difficult to accomplish.

II. Inequity in the City

Researchers at the University of Arkansas just published Charter School Funding: Inequity in the City.

The report finds that across 14 cities, public charter schools receive an average of $5,721 less per-pupil than traditional public schools, which equates to a 29% funding gap.

The data table below provides more detail.

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The authors do note that charters serve less special education students than traditional schools.

When controlled for special education, the results change a bit. Calculating the true costs of special education is notoriously difficult to estimate, so I view these figures as likely directionally correct but not 100% precise.

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 3.04.58 PMOnce special education is accounted for, two regions, Shelby Country and Houston spend more on charters than traditional schools (this is in part because philanthropy picks up some of the charter school tab).

But 10 other cities still have a +$500 or greater funding gap per student.

Glancing at these cities, it looks like the special education differential accounts for about 20-25% of the spending discrepancy.

So that original 29% funding gap is a bit high.

Let’s be generous to the traditional system and say the the true gap is closer to 20%.

III. Charter School Performance in the City

To gauge charter school performance in these cities, I looked at CREDO’s urban charter school study.

See below for a table that I crated that adds in the CREDO math and ELA effects in the last two columns.

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What do you notice?

In every city except for San Antonio, charters outperform the traditional system.

Sometimes it’s by small amounts (Atlanta), and sometimes it’s by large amounts (Boston), but in nearly every case charters outperform their traditional peers.

And while the above analysis only looks at ten or so cities, the results mirror other national studies that consistently find urban charter schools outperform traditional public schools while spending around 20% less per-pupil.

IV. What Could You do With a the Gains from Productivity?

Research indicates that charter schools can probably get better, or at least equal, results in low-income areas for 20% less cost. In New Orleans, these achievement gains held steady even when the charter sector grew to serve 95% of the students in the city, which provides some hope that these findings will stick at scale.

In a field where productivity gains are hard to come by, urban charter schools are a source of very significant productivity gains.

What, as a society, could we do with this 20% extra funding that urban charter schools could save us?

Well, we spend about $10,000 per student on public education in this country.

With a 20% savings, we could turn around and give a basic income grant of $4,000 to every family with two children.

Alternatively, we could spend money on additional social services.

Or we could put more money in the hands of taxpayers, which could help grow the economy and provide more jobs.

Any of these options, especially cash grants back to poor families, could do a lot for those in need.

This is why ignoring educational productivity is immoral.

It may not feel good to consider the educational system through a productivity lens, but to fail to do so is to hurt those who are most in need of our support.

More Money or More Charter Schools?

I review some of the recent research in a post at Education Next.

Here’s some math from the post:

Increasing Funding by Even 10% is Insanely Expensive

Consider a hypothetical town with 50,000 students, all of them who are in poverty, and a per-pupil allocation of $10,000.

Over ten years, increasing per-pupil by 10% will cost the town a half a billion dollars.

To put the costs in context: on average, it costs around $1,000,000 to launch a new charter school that serves 500 students.

This puts the cost of the charter intervention at roughly $100,000,000.

Also: the charter costs are one-time costs.

So over a ten-year period, the total bill for increasing funding by 10%: $500 million.

The total cost for scaling urban charters to serve all 50,000 students: $100 million.

For a fifth of the cost, you probably get 3-5X the achievement impact.

Do read the whole piece.

How to Increase Funding for Public Schooling by ~10 Billion a Year

Facilities are very expensive, and all things being equal, spending less on facilities allows for more money to be spent on instruction.

This report found that in Chicago charters spend 46% less on facilities than does Chicago Public Schools.

I imagine this is a larger deferential than in most districts. And while I don’t I have time to do a full research review, in most jurisdictions I work in I deal with facility costs, and it’s generally the case that charters spend less per student than the district does.

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Instead of 46%, let’s consider a lower end estimate of a 15% differential.

Here’s what we spend national on facilities, according to the NCES:

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So about ~1K for capital outlay and .37K for interest on debt (which I imagine has a facilities component to it) out of a total of 12.4K.

Let’s call roughly 10% of the per-pupil or 1.2K per student.

Reducing this cost by 15% would save us $180 dollars per student or a 1.5% decrease in total spending.

On an overall budget of $621 billion, we’d save about $9 billion a year.

Let me know if I got my math wrong….

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These are all very rough estimates, and while they are fairly conservative, they could be wrong.

But it’s surely plausible that we could shift $10 billion a year from facilities costs to instructional costs by moving to an all charter school system.

Spent well, this could support tutoring, field trips, class size reductions – or whatever educators and families thought best.

To the extent you believe money matters in schooling, it’s worth considering how increasing charter school development can drive more money into educational experiences rather than overpriced buildings.

The Complexity of the New Orleans Reform Effort Might Actually Make It Easier to Scale

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A recent study found that the New Orleans education reforms achieved a ~.4 effect size, which is the largest citywide effect the researchers have ever seen an effect that surpasses most of what you see in pre-k and class size reduction studies (at about a quarter of the cost).

In their write-up of the study, the researchers made a very important point about comparing the New Orleans reforms to pre-k interventions.

While it might seem hard to compare such different strategies, the heart of the larger school-reform debate is between systemic reforms like the portfolio model and resource-oriented strategies.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m a structuralist.

I believe that changing the structure of public education, by handing power back to educators and families, is likely to achieve much better long term results than any specific programmatic intervention. The researchers were right to point out this difference within the reform debate.

The researchers also note:

Unfortunately, the effects of even the most successful programs are often not replicated when tried elsewhere, and there are good reasons to think the conditions were especially ripe for success in New Orleans.

The researchers site New Orleans low absolute performance and the city’s ability to attract talent as reasons that replicability may be difficult to achieve.

Perhaps, though I do think there are plenty of cities in the country that have very little where to go but up and have access to a lot of talent (Oakland, Atlanta, Philly, Camden, etc.).

But here’s a point I think the researchers missed.

My guess is that because New Orleans took on a structural reform, and not a specific programmatic reform, the effort might actually be easier to scale. 

Often times, interventions that show the largest effects, such as labor intensive pre-k programs, require a lot of specialized expertise, high fidelity to implementation, and significant resources.

The confluence of organizational talent, strategy, and implementation is very hard to replicate.

But the New Orleans reforms were not particularly operational in nature. There was no multifacteded curriculum that had to be adopted, no teacher coaching model that required years of training, no wrap-around model that necessitated the coordination of numerous agencies.

Instead, most of what needed to happen was for the government to approve charters that had a decent shot at succeeding, close the schools that didn’t work, and expand the schools that did.

Of course, certain caveats deserve mention: these regulatory functions require building some expertise; they need a lot of political leadership; and an intentionally nurtured non-profit sector provided many supports.

But, even considering these issues, the fact is that the New Orleans model is predicated more on layering in a structure and strategy over a complex system than it is on executing an operational heavy, resource intensive intervention.

In the long run, this is exactly why I think the New Orleans model has the potential to scale.

Time will tell if it can.