Should leaders give praise to teammates?

Managing people didn’t come naturally to me. I struggled early on. I eventually became competent at it. But it’s not something I’m exceptional at.

I now work in a partnership. We don’t use a traditional hierarchical management structure, but I still have management duties. And I try to do them well.

The Best Managers of People I Know 

I’m close friends with two exceptional managers of people. If the United States somehow created an accurate national ranking of managers, I’d be shocked if they were not in the top .1%.

So I listen to them when they talk about managing people. And when I’m struggling with something, I often reach out to them. Both have a knack of telling me truth I wasn’t willing to tell myself because it would cause pain.

These two people strongly disagree on the role of praise. I don’t know who I agree with.

Praise as a Signal 

One of my friends strongly believes that praise is one of the most effective ways to incentivize mission aligned behavior.

According to this friend, if a manager knows what behaviors will lead to team success (and they should), then the manager should praise those behaviors whenever she sees it. And she should attempt to build a culture where others do this to.

The psychology behind this is fairly simple: people want to be praised, so if you praise people for something, they will do more of it.

My friend believes praise is one of the best reenforcement mechanisms a manager can use – and that it should be used frequently, at least weekly.

Praise as Sugar

Another friend says praise is like sugar: it gives you a quick dopamine hit, then you want more of it, and the more you get the you need to get high again.

According to this friend, a manager should try to create a culture where people are constantly trying to figure out what it will take for the organization to succeed, and then they do these things because they deeply care about the organization and have an internal desire to be the best version of themselves.

This friend also believes that praise gets the incentives all wrong. Because a manager can easily be fooled, if team members are just seeking out praise, they may act in ways that gets praise from the manager but is not actually in the best interest of the organization.

The psychology here is simple: people should have a deep ownership of the organization’s mission and their own personal self-actualization, and external praise short circuits this ownership.

When Brilliant People Disagree

My two friends are both brilliant managers of people and they disagree on this issue. Whenever two brilliant people disagree, and they are experts on the issue, and they have every incentive to be right on the issue because their mission depends on it…. then my first thought is that it’s a really really hard problem, and my second thought is that the answer might be situation specific and they might both be right.

Operational Clarity vs. Operational Uncertainty

I sometimes wonder if praise is most useful in organization’s with a lot of operational certainty and least useful in organization’s with a lot of operational uncertainty.

In other words, the less the manager actually knows what should be done, the less useful praise is.

If, for example, you’re managing a team to create a strategy for a complicated product launch, you probably don’t know what the right answer is for everyone on your team. If you give a lot praise, you could very well praise bad ineffective actions.

If, on the other hand, you’re managing 1,000 people to do the exact same job, and this is the third year in a row these people have executed on this task, you probably know exactly what you want to see. So it’s probably pretty easy to praise a good performance.

I’m not sure that this distinction matters for using praise, but I think it might.

Should Leaders Give Praise?

I don’t really know where I land on this.

My guess is that I significantly praise each person I work with 3-5 times a year.

I think my model for this is:

(1) I do want people to know when I think they did something pretty amazing, both because I care deeply about them and I want to signal that those types of accomplishments will help us succeed for children; and

(2) I do kind of think praise is like sugar, so I don’t do it too much.

Perhaps I’m trying to have my cake and it eat it too. I’m not sure.

One last thought: I sometimes think people confuse praise with care. I think it’s very important for leaders and colleagues to care for one each other. Care is the foundation for trust and trust is the foundation for good conflict. Also, life is short, and it’s better lived by surrounding yourself with people who care about you and who you care about.

But praise isn’t the only way to show care. It’s probably not in the top five. I would rather work for someone who cares deeply but praises sparingly rather than someone who praises effusively but cares shallowly.

Public education 25 years from now

What might public education look like 25 years from now?

The future is hard to predict, but it can be fun to try. The below is a mix of hope, curiosity, thought experimentation, and wild speculation. I’m not confident any of it will happen; for some of it I’m not confident it should happen.

Early Childhood Education

Starting at the age on one, means tested vouchers are offered to every family to spend on childcare that meets a basic level of accreditation. All young children get access to nurturing care. And low-income parents who wish to work and continue building their careers don’t face childcare costs that eat up most of their income. The United States moves from an international laggard to getting close to international leaders, such as Sweden. This is expensive, but growing productivity gains have made us wealthier and Americans wisely decide to spend some of this wealth on young children.

Kindergarten to 10th Grade

Public schools morph to significantly change the power dynamics between the school district, educators, curricular providers, and families.

School district bureaucracies are paired back. A system of great schools replaces the traditional school system, with families having access to an array of autonomous district schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and private schools – all of which have much more operational control. The lines between these types of schools begins to blur, and the political fights between these types of schools subsides. Non-profit organizations run a lot more schools than today, but school districts still serve the majority of children.

A lot of entrepreneurship, a little bit of competition, and a lot of best practice sharing make all public schools better. It’s a great time to be a public school educator.

While schools get more autonomy, many schools begin to gravitate to the best learning platforms. Over a few decades, many incredible academic models are put on cloud-based learning platforms that transparently support students, teachers, and families through a rigorous curriculum and independent assessments. Some models, such as Montessori and IB have been around for awhile. Others, such as Achievement First Navigator, Khan Academy, and Summit Basecamp, are born from more recent entrepreneurship. All of these models combine both academic and social emotional development into one programmatic model. Most schools choose one learning platform but tailor it the kids they serve.

Many teachers specialize in one or more of the learning models that they are most passionate about. They gain deep content expertise in the model and grow expert at intellectually and emotional supporting students through the model’s progression. Teacher training in colleges is more grounded in supporting students in these models rather than being so heavily focused on theory. Many of the best learning platforms open their own teacher training programs for on-going educator development.

Families have a lot of great information about public schools as well as how their children are doing. Online enrollment systems provide transparent information on every public school in the area and allow for more equal enrollment access. 3rd party providers like Great Schools provide independent analysis. Because most schools are on one of the top learning platforms, families are better able to distinguish between the approaches of different public schools. The school down the road is no longer a black box. Families know what they are being promised. And the big data provided by the internal assessments of the learning platforms give families very transparent information about how their children are progressing.

In places with high rates of poverty, support services are ramped up. Physical and mental health services are provided at the school site. A mix of onsite and offsite programs serve students with severe physical or emotional needs. Social workers provide intensive services to families who are struggling the most. Data-driven Strive type programs coordinate an array of services and prevent kids from falling through the cracks.

The major increases in educator autonomy and family information do not cost much more than the current system. Overall public expenditures for K12 stay fairly flat in terms of real dollars. However, spending on support services for very at-risk students rises significantly.

Grades 11 and 12

The traditional public school system changes dramatically after grade 10. Once a student has shown mastery of secondary material, they can begin experimenting and specializing.

Grades 11 and 12 are funded with universal vouchers. Families are able to spend the vouchers on any accredited education institution, including a regular high school, a higher education institution, an apprenticeship program, working abroad, or being a subsidized employee at a great for-profit or non-profit organization.

Some kids continue at their high schools. Some kids go straight to college. Some kids begin trade school in data and analytics. Some kids begin trade school in nursing programs. Some kids join together to start local businesses. Some kids move to San Francisco and join start-ups. Some join writing camps where they write their first novels. Most kids do a few of these things. It’s a time of exploration.

Once You Turn 18 

Every adult gets access to a low interest loan for up to 6 years of schooling or subsidized employment through their adult life. Very few people do this all at one time.

The subsidized loans can only be used at institutions that agree to repay the government for 50% of unpaid loans. If you educate a student who can’t afford to pay back the government, you share the losses. This reduces the number of students who go to four year colleges (as many of these students are too risky to take on) and increases the number of programs that provide sound job training to students who would have likely attended but dropped out of four year universities. Many of these programs are income contingent pay-back models where a student only has to pay back their loans if they earn a certain salary.

More students than ever make the jump to a meaningful career. Higher education expenditures fall as fewer dollars are wasted on programs that provide little value to many of their students.

In Sum

Early childhood is vastly expanded. All kids get access to a nurturing early childhood environment.

Empowered educators run schools serving grades K-10. A public system of schools is operationally decentralized, more programmatically centralized through great third party content providers, and greatly expanded in scope of services provided to at-risk kids. Families have much more information about how schools, and their own children, are doing.

Grades 11 and 12 allow for young adults to experiment across a variety of learning experiences.

Post high-school education is more accountable, specialized, and on-going. Kids are not left with loans that they can’t pay back. Institutions survive by adapting their offerings to what different kids need to cross the bridge into secure, meaningful adulthood.

 

Should states use test score based accountability systems? If so, how? If not, why?

Over the past decade, I’ve deepened my belief in the power of letting educators form non-profits to run public schools. Both experience (walking into amazing public schools) and research (a track record of reading and math gains) have shown me that non-profits are an incredibly valuable tool in making public education better.

I’ve also deepened my belief in unified enrollment systems. They can give families a lot of information about public schools and make enrolling in public schools much easier.

I do not have deep confidence in my views on accountability. I often find myself moving up and down the spectrum of: no accountability (just let parents choose), to accountability-lite (require testing, share this information, but don’t intervene), to accountability heavy (require testing, give schools letter grades, intervene in lowest performing schools).

I think reasonable arguments can be made for all three approaches.

Recent NWEA Research

NWEA just published a new report using a national data set from the tests they license to schools. Many schools we work with use these tests. I’m not expert enough in statistics to evaluate the reliability of their findings, but the report raised some important issues.

Absolute test scores are highly correlated with poverty. The chart below shows that test scores rise as income increases. This is not new information.

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Student growth is not tightly correlated with poverty. Unlike absolute achievement, individual student growth does not rise significantly with income. Many high poverty achieve growth that mirrors those of their wealthier peers.

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Schools with similar levels of poverty perform very differently on growth. The red line in the chart below represents how schools with high poverty perform on academic growth. It is a fairly wide curve. Many schools achieve low growth, while others achieve very high growth. To the extent you believe that growth is a pretty good measure of school performance (the researchers do), this performance spread might increase a policymaker’s willingness to intervene in low-performing schools and expand high-performing schools.

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Focusing on absolute test scores will cause you to misidentify many, many schools. The graph below is tricky to read, but it’s very important. The red line represents all schools that are in the bottom 5% for absolute test scores. And it shows that 77% of these schools (the bottom 5% on absolute) are close to the average or better on growth. In other words, if you just closed the bottom 5% of schools based on absolute achievement, nearly 80% of the schools you’d close probably would be mistakenly closed (given their growth scores). This is pretty damning evidence against those who want to focus mostly on absolute achievement in accountability measures.

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When Does a Good Policy Idea Become Indefensible Because of Bad Practice?

Over the past few years, most states reworked their accountability systems during the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

Unfortunately, this report found that only 18 states weighted growth for at least 50% of the total accountability score, with another 23 states weighting growth at least at 33%.

On one hand, this is an improvement over old accountability systems. On the other hand, this means a lot of states are unfairly rating high poverty schools that have decent growth but low absolute scores.

I think a fair critique of test based accountability is that it’s a reasonable idea that has very little hope of being reasonably implemented.

My Own Thoughts

Again, I do believe deeply in letting non-profit organizations operate public schools. And I do believe deeply in enrollment systems that make it easier for families to find a great school for their children.

I’m uncertain about accountability, but here’s what I think I’d do if I were superintendent of a school district:

  1. Calculate a letter grade score for growth and a letter grade score for absolute achievement score.
  2. Publish the higher of these grades as the letter grade that appears most prominently on the online enrollment system. I would also include the lower letter grade, as well as a bunch of information about school programs and curriculum, on the school’s online profile.
  3. Allow for government intervention in schools that are in the bottom 5-10% for both growth and absolute (you need to perform bad on both).

This type of accountability system gives parent’s good information, avoids the political war of giving low letter grades to schools with high absolute scores, and avoids the error of intervening in schools that have low absolute scores and higher growth scores.

It does give an accountability pass to schools with high absolute scores and low growth, but I view this ok in that it’s both politically useful and it does reflect the notion that parents really want to get into these schools.

It also still uses test scores as the primary way to evaluate schools. This sits uneasy with me, as I think schooling is about much more than tests, but I haven’t seen any other way to measure schools that feels more reliable. I hope this changes.

I’m not very confident that this is the best system, but I think it’s the best of a bunch of options that all have reasonable drawbacks.

Another hard question would be what to do if local politics did not allow for the creation of a system like this. At some point, if the drum beat for absolute scores was too much, I’d probably walk away from accountability as a superintendent.

But I’m not sure. If you scan this blog’s history, I’m sure you can find me saying conflicting things about accountability. I’m conflicted about it. But the above reflects my current thinking of what makes for a good accountability system.

Lastly, if you want to hear a good version of the argument against test based accountability, see here.

Does research matter?

A common critique of public charter schools is that they hurt traditional schools.

As of 2016, this questions had been studied by researchers in 16 regions. In 15 regions, they found that public charter school growth had positive or neutral effects on student learning in traditional schools. The table below summarizes the results of these studies.

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In 2016, a ballot initiative in Massachusetts called for “lifting the cap” on charter schools. In many cities in Massachusetts, it is illegal  for public non-profit charter schools to serve more students, even if parents want to send their children to these schools.

This is despite the fact that Boston is home to some of the best charter schools in the nation. You can check out this NYT article to learn more.

By a large margin, the ballot measure was rejected by voters in Massachusetts. Prominent political leaders, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, came out against it.

A post-ballot analysis showed that the measure lost because many people believed that expanding public charter schools would hurt traditional public schools.

Yet, as I noted at the beginning of the post, in 2016 we had a good amount of evidence that this wasn’t likely to be true.

Research did not matter to the Massachusetts outcome.

Now a new study has come out looking at this exact issue in Massachusetts. And the researchers found that between 2011 and 2015, charter school expansion did not negatively impact traditional schools in Massachusetts (and may have had a small positive effect).

Voters in Massachusetts hold incorrect beliefs.

So now there have been studies in 17 regions, and in 16 of these regions public charter growth has had either positive or neutral effects on traditional schools.

Will votes in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, change these beliefs?

A cynic might say no. She might argue that voters don’t vote based on research, they vote based on emotion and tribal affiliation.

There is much truth to this argument.

But I have been influenced a lot by another argument. Lant Pritchett, in this podcast, argues that while a single research study rarely changes the world, hundreds of them often do.

In other words, if a bunch of studies pile up, and they all roughly show the same thing, at some point it becomes hard to argue against them. Sooner or later, you find yourself in the anti-vaccine tribe.

I think there is a lot of merit to this argument.

So while those of that support great public charter schools should develop communication strategies that pull at the heartstrings and speak to the tribe, I also think we should keep building our evidence base.

I think research does matter.

At some point, if the research studies keep piling up, they will increase the probability that the voters of Massachusetts, and elsewhere, change their minds.

Group check-ins, flashcards, and other experiments in our virtual organization

The City Fund is a virtual organization made up of mostly senior leaders.

Some standard organizational practices don’t seem best suited for our situation. So we are beginning to experiment.

I think that reinventing organizational management is a fools endeavor, but modifying at the margins can lead to better performance.

Here are some things we are trying:

Alternating 1-1 and group check-ins: We are no longer conducting 1-1 weekly check-ins with managers. Instead, every other week will be a group check-in with a 3 person pod. We think this will increase the effectiveness of problem solving, reduce knowledge silos, increase pattern recognition, and increase team member investment in other people’s work.

Once a month fly-ins: We are finding that quarterly retreats are too infrequent to tackle pressing big issues. So now once a month we all fly into a city, have dinner, and then spend the next day tackling our toughest problems together. We then fly out in the afternoon. We hope that this will allow us to solve big problems quicker as well as increase team bonding.

Monday optional discussions: We are finding that our 2 hour video team call on Friday is not great for informal brainstorming and debating. The agendas tend to be tight and based on making decisions. So we have now have a one hour optional video call on Monday. The video calls never have more than 1-2 topics and are meant for more open discussion.

Slack summaries: A lot of our work happens when an individual team member is a visiting a city. This makes it a bit difficult to learn together. So now we use slack to record visit observations, allowing other team members to chime in with advice. Simply reading these reports also increases building pattern recognition.

Flashcards: This quarter we are piloting flashcards. Each flashcard deck will be on a topic that everyone on our team should be smart on; i.e., the most important educational research on our strategies. During the pilot, we’ll ask each team member to spend ~10 minutes a day working through some flashcards.

We’re not sure what will work and what won’t. We’ll try things for a quarter and stop whatever is not working.

A common theme of these practices is that we’re trying to get smarter as quickly as possible. We hope that this will help us be more effective in making public education better.

When you’re building for the long-haul, quick marginal improvements matter a lot.

Over the years, they can compound into major improvements in effectiveness.

What I’ve been reading

21 Lessons for the 21st Century  by Yuval Harari (author of Sapiens)

I tend to learn from Harari the most when he’s looking backwards, not forwards. This book is no different. His historical analysis on war, terrorism, religion, tribes, etc. is always informative. His forward looking speculations tend to vividly follow one logic path forward rather than consider a broader spread of possibilities. Many times throughout this book I found myself thinking, “well, that could be true, but I can think of another dozen ways this could plausibly turnout.” This was especially true on the future of inequality and the economy. But I’m happy reading any book that is even 10% insightful and thought provoking, and this surely beats that mark.

High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil

Another book that easily meets the 10% insightful and thought provoking bar, though on a different subject matter. The book covers what it takes to scale a tech company, with very specific sections on building out necessary verticals (engineering, communications, finance, etc.) – as well as general management lessons on managing team and culture through explosive growth. Each section includes an interview with a top tier CEO who reflects on their own experience. Think of this book as covering a bunch of management topics and prizing earned experience over research. So many great nuggets, but at times careless with causation.

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

The books serves as very good primer on Robin’s quest (mostly on his blog) to show that so much of what people do is driven by motivations that we don’t talk about; i.e., we care about healthcare both because we want people to be healthy *and* we want to show that we’re the kind of people who care about others. From this thesis, the authors do a good job at showing how policy is distorted by these hidden motives, likely resulting in the waste of trillions of dollars.

Measure What Matters by John Doer

A history and overview of Doer’s OKR system. I’m already converted (we use a modified version of this at The City Fund) so this book was a bit less useful to me, though a quick skim was good reenforcement.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrant

Alcohol is so deeply intertwined with modern life – how is it possible that our country went so far as to pass a constitutional amendment against it? I’ve always been baffled by this question and wanted to learn more. This book was a good primer, especially with how connected prohibition was to how much men used to drink and how little power woman had at home. This was clearly a terrible combination that led to an extreme policy solution.

Skin in the Game by Taleb

Another book that easily meets the 10% insightful and thought provoking bar, though one has to deal with Taleb’s grating personality. The wisdom in the book comes from a rethinking of who should deserve status and praise, with a push toward giving status to people who take real risks for the benefit of us all. The foolishness of the book is how extreme Taleb is in his judgments.

 

What Chicago’s first year of unified enrollment tells us about what families want

Last year, Chicago adopted a online unified enrollment system for high schools. Families in Chicago can now search online to find a public school for their child, and, most importantly, apply directly on the website.

Chicago has over 250 high school programs across a 130 high schools. If families don’t know these options exist, or can’t navigate all of the different application processes, these choices aren’t really choices.

An online unified enrollment system can help families find a school that works for their child.

The University of Chicago just put out a research brief on the results of Chicago’s first year using a unified enrollment system. Full study here.

Chicago’s System is Easy to Use

The unified enrollment website is simple to use. You search by  location, performance, and program type. Here’s a screenshot from my search for a level 1+ (highest rated) IB school in Chicago.

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Some unified enrollment systems have opaque search systems, so it’s great to see Chicago’s system work so well. I’m sure this was part of the reason that over 90% of rising ninth grade students used the system.

80% of Chicago Families Received 1 of Their Top 3 Choices

Many big cities don’t have enough great public schools. Chicago is no different. So it’s alway a bit surprising to see so many families get one of their top choices, as I would have expected that most families would apply to the top dozen or so schools. This occurred to some extent: the most in demand schools averaged 10 applications for ever seat. Still, 51% of students got into their first choice. Families rank schools very differently from each other.

This is a also reminder that my preferences (and yours too!) differ from families living across Chicago. I’m not sure whether or not these preferences differ because of different values or different access to information. It’s probably a mix of both. But we should be careful to assume that others share our opinion of what makes a great public school.

What School Attributes are Correlated with High Demand?

Arts, career tech, and school rating were most correlated with high demand. Parents seem to respond to school specialization and the district’s performance labeling system.

It’s illuminating that both arts and career tech programs are in high demand. Presumably, these are very different kinds of schools. Again, different families really do want different types of schools. Meeting this diversity of family preferences is hard to achieve in a school system where every child attends her neighborhood school.

I don’t know whether it was general reputation or the district performance system that drove the performance based demand. Either way, it’s another sign that parents do care about performance. As can be seen below, while 32% of Chicago high schools receive a lower performance score (a “2” or a “3”), these schools are rarely ranked first.

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Who Chooses Public Charter Schools?

29% of students from the lowest-income neighborhoods ranked a charter school as their top choice. Only 10% of students from wealthy neighborhoods chose charters.

For many low-income families, charters offer a better public education.

This family demand is supported by research. A report by the University of Chicago found that high school charters in Chicago outperform their traditional peers.

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A Few Schools Received Almost No Applicants

So far, Hirsch High School has zero accepted applicants; and only one rising freshman has chosen to attend Douglass High School.

It is good for this data to be public. Too often, school systems try to paper over the fact that nobody wants to attend some of their schools.

A more difficult issue is what to do about these schools. My preference is to replace under-enrolled schools with high-performing non-profit operated schools. Research has shown that, done well, this can provide students with better educational opportunities.

However, if the neighborhood has lost too much population, there might not be enough students to justify a school.

Chicago has around 40,000 ninth grade seats available to students, but only 26,000 high school students, leaving around a third of seats vacant.

Thank You to the Early Adopters 

Chicago is not the first city to adopt unified enrollment. These cities also use unified enrollment systems for at least some grades: Washington D.C., New York, Denver, Indianapolis, Camden, Newark, New Orleans.

These cities vary in size, performance, and politics.

But in being early adopters, they are helping us learn a lot about how to make enrollment easier for families.

They are also helping us learn a lot about what types of schools families want for their children.

Hopefully, these cities will continue to see success with their systems and other communities will follow.

New Orleans, the New Yorker, and the perils of flawed comparisons

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Gary Sernovitz just wrote an interesting piece in the New Yorker on the New Orleans public school system.  He argues that the New Orleans public school system is designed around free market principles that are, at times, being poorly applied to the public sector. Gary draws lessons from his time serving on the board of a charter school that eventually lost its charter for financial reasons.

Before considering his arguments, I just want to give a thank you to Gary. He joined a charter school board and devoted a lot time trying to make public education better. It’s great to see people with his commitment and intelligence serving on charter boards. I hope more people follow his lead.

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Gary argues that the New Orleans public education system is designed around “the engines of the free market – autonomy, competition, and customer choice” but that these design principles are currently inadequate to meet the aims of public education in New Orleans.

Gary points to three main problems with the New Orleans system: rewards, incentives, and start-up capital.

Rewards

Gary argues that New Orleans’ schools demand crazy work hours but offer mediocre compensation. Unlike for-profit founders, there is no dream of a financial exit for charter founders or their teams.

I don’t disagree with these facts. If you want to get rich, starting a non-profit charter school in New Orleans is not the way to go.

But this is the problem with Gary’s premise: the New Orleans public school system was never designed to mimic all parts of the free market. The goal of working in a charter school is not to get rich; it’s to do good while earning enough to live a middle or upper middle class lifestyle.

The reward model provides a different set of rewards for different kinds of educators.

Many teachers teach in charter schools for 3-5 years, work long hours, and are rewarded with the meaning that comes with knowing you helped others. They then go onto other things.

A minority of teachers find that teaching is their lifelong calling. Their hours tend to go down overtime as their mastery of teaching goes up. The most skilled teachers in New Orleans can achieve in 50 hours a week what it takes a novice to achieve in 70 hours a week. Their rewards come from the joy of doing good work, building meaningful relationships with children, and earning a stable middle class income.

Another set of teachers move into administrative roles. They tend to spend another 5-10 years working in leadership positions. Their rewards come from the challenges of leadership, seeing impact at a larger scale, and earning an upper middle class income.

Yes, current model does rely on younger teachers, who work more hours, and leave the classroom more frequently than their traditional peers. But this model is delivering better results for children than the old talent model. And it has been doing so for over a decade, which leads me to believe that the talent model is sustainable.

That being said, I’m open to the idea the current model is not optimal. I can think of two potential improvements: raising taxes to increase educator salaries, or simply encouraging charters to be for-profits so there can actually be financially exits and equity based compensation. But New Orleans is a poor city in a poor state, so I’m skeptical that New Orleans will be able to raise salaries by large amounts. As for for-profit charters, while a reasonable idea in theory, their results to date have been underwhelming, so I’m not holding my breath here either.

Rather, I think New Orleans has organically evolved to the best talent model under very imperfect conditions.

Incentives 

Gary’s main criticism of the New Orleans public school system is that it does not fully fund the costs for students with special needs. In market terms, it gets the price wrong.

Gary sat on the board of Cypress Academy, which intentionally enrolled a lot of students with special needs. These students cost more money to serve well.

The New Orleans per-pupil revenue system is designed with this reality in mind: I believe New Orleans has the most weighted per-pupil system in the country. Schools receive up to 3x of the regular per-pupil to serves students with severe special needs.

Because of this model, numerous schools in the city are able to serve a lot of students with special needs. Many networks have even developed specialized programs for high needs students.

I’m open to the idea that the weights need to be further increased. But the Cypress financial model should have been built around the existing financial regulatory regime. It is well known to all charter operators in the city, and Cypress should not have opened if they did not have a viable financial model to serve the students they wanted to serve.

If Cypress thought the per-pupil funding system was wrong, it should have advocated for policy change before opening its doors. Instead, it opened with an unsustainable model. This was a mistake.

Start-up Capital 

Gary argues that there is not enough start-up money to help a new charter school get to scale.

I don’t think this is true.

When I worked at New Schools for New Orleans, we helped 10+ new charter school start-ups open schools, and none failed for financial reasons. Rather, all of them received enough funds (usually $500K to $1m in philanthropy) to cover their operations until they reached scale.

My understanding is that Cypress Academy received start-up grants in the range of other successful start-up charter schools in New Orleans, such as Bricolage Academy.

And, again, none of the financial realities should have been a surprise to the founders of Cypress. If they knew they were going to run a deficit over the first few years, they should not have opened unless they were fairly certain they could raise the necessary philanthropy to cover this gap.

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Dozens of new charter schools have opened successfully over the past decade. These schools operate sustainable talent models, serve students with special needs, and scaled with the support of philanthropy.

Cypress Academy failed for reasons that seem to be mostly predictable. The balance of the fault appears to be with the school, not with system.

Lastly, it’s worth emphasizing that the New Orleans public school system is not designed to be a free market. It’s a publicly funded system operated by non-profit organizations.

Yes, it has more market mechanisms than a traditional government operated system, but it’s so far from being a free market that most comparisons to free markets obscure more than they illuminate.

The City Fund

While there are amazing public schools across the country, few cities have been able to increase educational opportunity for all children.

Over the past fifteen years, this has begun to change. Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans have made their entire public education systems better. Other cities, like Indianapolis and Camden, have taken these breakthroughs, tailored them to their local contexts, and seen promising early results. Because of this work, hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from a better public education. These students are more prepared than ever to further their education, get good jobs, and lead lives filled with opportunity. We are now creating a new non-profit organization, The City Fund, to expand on this work.

Previously, several of us operated within a dual structure supporting the education giving for both the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund. We are  in the process of changing this structure and have added new team members to create The City Fund. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund will continue their support of the work as anchor funders.

The new organization includes leaders from Education Cities, as well as expert practitioners from the state, district, charter and non-profit sectors. This new team will help us provide better support to local leaders. We are just getting started and will have a website up in short order, but now that our team is hired, we wanted to share the news.

All of us are united by a common perspective. First, right now, too many students do not have access to a great public school. Second, we believe this can change.

We share this belief because we have seen better schools improve the lives of families in all of our respective work. We’ve seen awesome teachers inspire children to build the knowledge, skills, and values needed to make the world a better place. We’ve seen world class public schools provide rich educational experiences to all their students, regardless of race or economic circumstances.

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Our nation’s education system is a complicated patchwork of thousands of local school districts. Improvements will not happen overnight, nor should they.

Rather, cities across the country are constantly innovating, and when a few cities do something that seems to be working, philanthropy can help shine a light on these local successes. If other cities are interested, philanthropy can help test these breakthroughs at a little larger scale.

The cities we have supported have made things better in their own way, but several commonalities stand out: each city increased the number of public schools that are governed by non-profit organizations; each city created an easy to use enrollment system that helps families find a great public school for their children; and each city provides families with transparent information about public school quality. We believe these strategies hold promise.

While we are optimistic that the work we’re supporting will succeed at the next level of scale, much more work, innovation, and research is needed. Over the coming years, we’ll continue to support a small set of local education leaders. We’ll also work with university researchers to study these local efforts. If cities show progress, we hope other cities will follow. If they don’t, we hope other promising innovations are able to scale, so that all students can have access to amazing public schools.

Chris Barbic

Gary Borden

Ken Bubp

Beverly Francis-Pryce

Ethan Gray

David Harris

Kevin Huffman

Noor Iqbal

Neerav Kingsland

Jessica Pena

Liset Rivera

Kevin Shafer

Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo

Gabrielle Wyatt

Early signs that the New Orleans reforms did more than raise test scores

For the past ten years, I’ve been worried that the test score gains we were seeing in New Orleans wouldn’t lead to longer-term benefits for New Orleans students.

I worried about this both because of the research showing that increases in test scores are not always correlated to better life outcomes, as well as the fact that many colleges in Louisiana are pretty mediocre and could still fail to educate students even if they came in better prepared.

Thankfully, just published research by Doug Harris and Matt Larson provides early indication that New Orleans students have both achieved an increase test score performance *and* better post-secondary outcomes.

While it’s wonderful to see this data, we’ll continue to learn more as additional cohorts student graduate from the new public system. So far, only a few cohorts of New Orleans students attended all of their high school and post-secondary education post-Katrina.

My expectation is that the results will improve overtime, as the major high school reforms took place later in the reform effort. Good non-profit charter school operators now run many more of the high schools than they did in the few years after the storm.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the New Orleans reforms were not a randomized controlled trial. A tragedy occurred and educators and families did their best in the aftermath. I’m not expert enough to judge the author’s methodological choices, but am eager to see other researchers weigh in on whether or not this is the best way to estimate the impacts of the reforms.

Test Scores

Across all subjects, the researchers found +.4-.6 standard deviations effects.

A rough rule of thumb is that .25 standard deviation increase equals an additional year of learning.

By this estimate, New Orleans students achieved an additional two years of learning relative to the education they would have received before the storm.

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High School Graduation

The researchers found an estimated six percentile point increase for high school graduation. While positive, this is below the gains of twenty points often touted by reformers. The researchers explain that because high school graduation was going up across the state, some of the twenty point gains would have likely occurred without the reforms.

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College Enrollment

The researchers found a 10-15 percentage point jump in college entry. The effect was particularly high for on-time college enrollment (enrolling right after high school), where the rate jumped from 22% to to 37%.

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College Graduation 

Of course, we don’t just want to see students enter college. We hope that they graduate as well.

The researchers found +4 percentage point gain for on-time college graduation (graduation within five years of enrollment), from about 10 percent to 14 percent.

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The results for staying in college for two years were higher: about +8 percentage points. So it seems likely that many students who entered college because of the reforms made it through at least two years.

But, again, these are very preliminary results. The students in the data set for college graduation experienced very little of the reform efforts. This rate should go up over time. I really hope that 14% on time graduation rate will rise significantly in the coming years.

Cost / Benefit of the Reforms

The researchers end their paper by noting that the ROI of the New Orleans’ reform efforts is higher than class size reforms and is within range of the famous Perry pre-school study (which is probably on the very high end for pre-k results).

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My guess is that the New Orleans effort is likely near the top of what we can expect for these types of city level reforms. The low baseline achievement, coupled with the speed of the post-Katrina effort, meant that the reform efforts had the potential to show large increases quickly.

But even if other cities see a ROI of 50% less, that would still make the reforms worth scaling.

But, for now, it’s worth celebrating a bit for the students of New Orleans: more of them than ever in recent history appear to be on track for choice filled and meaningful lives.