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.

performance chicago

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.

Families in Washington D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work

How do you figure out what parents want? 

There are two primary ways to figure out what families want from schools:

  1. Ask them what they want;
  2. Or observe what decisions they make.

The Washington D.C. Auditor’s office just released a public opinion report using the former method (asking families). Washington D.C. has a unified enrollment system where you can track what decisions parents are actually making. I wish this report would have used this data as well (like this report did in New Orleans). But despite this flaw, the opinion research is telling.

Families in D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work 

D.C. families had the following preferences:

  1. School preference: Families say they value educator and academic quality much more than a school being close to home.
  2. School type preference: Families prefer charter schools over their local neighborhood school.
  3. Policy preference: Families want to invest more in neighborhood schools rather than giving more parents chance to opt into a charter or out of boundary traditional school.

Putting this together: families want public schools with great educators and challenging academics; they think charters schools are more likely to provide this; but they want more money put into neighborhood schools.

Of course, this on average. No doubt there is immense diversity in opinion across families.

Why do many families want to fix what’s not working rather than expand what is working? 

I can think of a couple reasons:

Empathy and bad strategy: Families feel bad for the kids who are stuck in the worse schools, and the most intuitive answer to “what should we do with more resources?” is “fix what’s not working.” In the private sector, fortunes have been lost on this fallacy. In the public sector, fortunes are spent on efforts that have failed for decades.

Virtue signaling: Families want to express that they are good people and not selfish, and in our society saying you want to invest more in neighborhood schools is a way to signal that you’re a good person.

They want their neighborhood schools to improve, they just don’t want their kids to suffer in the meantime: Perhaps families would rather send their own kids to the local neighborhood school, so they do want these schools to get better, but they’re just not willing to send their children there while they wait for this to happen.

I imagine all these factors are at play.

How do you respond?

I think this issue will continue to play out in high choice cities that are providing families with a lot of great public school options.

When it comes to their own children, families will, on average, send their children to the best public schools.

But when it comes to public opinion, families will say we should invest more in the schools that aren’t working.

This puts public charter school supporters in a very tricky position.

How can we try to create more great public schools under this dynamic?

I think charter supporters need to be very cautious in engaging in major, public citywide or statewide fights.

We can win an individual families’ hearts and minds when it comes to their own child, but the policy battles are tougher.

In other words: just keep on opening amazing new public charter schools. The system will become the best version of itself through educators opening up great public schools and families finding the best fit for their own children.

But it is also worth considering pacing: too much growth too quickly can shift an individual school opening debate into a citywide policy debate – a type of debate that is easily lost, as it was in Massachusetts.

Lastly, gradually opening up new great public schools will ultimately give families both what they want for their own children and what they want for the city: if every public school is great, than by default every school in every neighborhood will be great too.

Data from the report

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