Doubling down when you’ve been wrong

From 2012 to 2016, three reforms took place in Memphis: the Gates Foundation teacher evaluation reform, the Achievement School District (ASD) charter school turnaround effort, and the district run izone turnaround effort.

In private conversations, I predicted that neither the teacher evaluation nor izone efforts would work. I thought the ASD charter effort work would work. The Arnold Foundation funded research to help us understand if our beliefs about how to help children were correct.

Five years later, the results paint a different picture than my predictions: the teacher evaluation work did not improve achievement. The ASD charters have yet to deliver results. And the izone schools have done the best.

I was wrong about the izone and the ASD.

So what to do now?

The short answer: expand non-profit governance to protect the gains of izone schools, and continue to grow the best non-profit public charters and replace the worst.

The longer answer is below.

Responding to Being Wrong

There are three ways to respond to being wrong: ignore that you were wrong, change your behavior, or admit that you were wrong but double down.

Ignoring that you’re wrong is never good.

Changing your behavior is often the most reasonable response.

Doubling down comes with substantive and reputation risk, but it can be the right thing to do.

Memphis Results 

The teacher evaluation reforms went roughly as I expected, so I won’t discuss that too much here, other than saying that my predictions were based on the belief that execution would hamper implementation in big urban districts, which seems to be exactly what happened.

Here are the results of the izone and ASD charter efforts:

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The izone had a positive .2 stand deviation effect over five years. This is fairly good impact and it’s great to see these schools helping students.

The ASD schools had no impact.

What I Got Wrong

I made a few mistakes.

First, I underestimated the school district’s strategic and executional competency. In creating the izone, the district successfully recruited a lot of their best educators to their izone schools, and then appointed a talented leader, Sharon Griffith, to oversee these schools. This strategy (concentrating talent) and execution (selecting a great leader) worked in ways I did not expect.

Second, I overestimated the abilities of charter networks to deliver results in the first few years of the turnaround efforts. My assumption was that expert charter leaders would be able to deliver better results pretty quickly, even though they were going into very difficult situations and were often coming from out of town. Unfortunately, a few operators really struggled in the early years, with one of them, Yes College Prep, choosing to not even open up a school (this was a big hit as YES is considered to be one of the best networks in the country).

What I Would Have Done Differently 

I should have realized that great educators in the traditional system could achieve good results if given autonomy in a competitive environment. I have changed my beliefs on this issue based of the work of the izone, the work in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and my lived experience of seeing great teachers and leaders in all types of schools.

Rather than predict the izone wouldn’t work, I should have predicted that the izone might work, but advocated for non-profit governance over the zone so that it could sustain its gains. This remains my worry with the izone: that it will not be able to sustain its impacts over the next 5-10 years due to its governance structure, which makes it vulnerable to political shifts.

I also worry that it can’t really scale. Putting the best educators in the worst school is more of a one time intervention rather than a strategy that can grow over time, and it has some negative effects on the schools that lose their great educators.

Second, I should have realized that early stage charter operators (either newly started or new to Memphis) would struggle to scale through full school turnarounds in a difficult political environment. In hindsight, I should have advocated for more one grade at a time roll outs of newer operators. While this would have been more disruptive to families at the outset, it would have been better for kids over the long run.

What to Do Now

If the above diagnosis is true, it doesn’t really call for a dramatic change in strategy.

Rather, it calls for trying to get non-profit governance over the best district schools, growing the charters that are working, replacing those that aren’t, and starting new non-profit district and charter schools under more favorable conditions.

Getting non-profit governance to the best district educators would (I think) require a change in legislation.

Growing the best charter schools and closing the worst  can be done under current policy.

Evidence to Support Doubling Down

Researchers have found evidence of charter school sectors improving over time. This paper on charters in Texas found significant sector improvements, which led the researchers to write:

The findings suggest the value of taking a longer-term perspective when evaluating the impact of a major educational reform such as the introduction of charter schools, especially when the success of the reform ostensibly depends on parental decisions and market forces.

Additionally, previous research on Memphis charters found strong positive effects:

Screen Shot 2018-06-23 at 8.03.44 AM

These results mirror the results of many other urban charter sectors, which generally find positive effects.

So there is a research based case for predicting that the Memphis charters will improve over the next 5-10 years. We have already seen this with some operators, such as Aspire.

In Sum 

The research has increased my belief that great district school educators, with autonomy and support (and often pressure on local districts from the state to give this autonomy) can really help struggling students.

I still believe that these gains risk backsliding due to political shifts, so I support giving these schools non-profit governance so they can build enduring organizations (both Denver and Indianapolis have mechanisms to give district schools non-profit status).

I also still believe that growing the best charters and closing the worst is one of the best hopes for improving student achievement in Memphis.

So, in many ways, I’m choosing to double down despite being wrong, with the caveat of calling for non-profit governance for more types of public schools.

While this is uncomfortable, I don’t know a better way forward. I think doubling down will help children.

I understand that many of those who I disagree with say “we just need more time.” And I’m making a version of this argument here. So I’ve tried to lay out all my assumptions as clearly as possible, both for the sake of transparency, as well as with the hope that these assumptions can be corrected if they are wrong.

Two opinions in the San Francisco Chronicle

The SF Chronicle recently published two op-eds on education.

The first was written by three Bay Area school board members: Judy Appel, Roseann Torres and Madeline Kronenberg.

They called for an end to the charter school appeals process. Currently, charter schools that are rejected by school boards can appeal to the county (and the state). These board members want the right to reject charter schools, with no recourse for appeal.

Their opinion is that public charter schools are harming public education.

In their own words:

Charter schools do all of this — siphon public school funds, dodge transparency requirements, limit collective bargaining of educators, cherry-pick students and turn others away — with the claim of providing a superior public education. However, study after study shows that outcomes don’t differ between students who attend traditional public schools and charters. Instead, charters simply bleed public schools of precious resources, leaving educators and administrators to do more with less.

A second op-ed was written by members of three immigrant families: Rocio Arias, Gloria Aguilar, and Leticia Molina.

They want elected officials to stop blaming public charter schools for decades of poor results from public traditional schools. And they are frustrated that government officials often exercise school choice for their own kids (either through attending private schools or public schools that are zoned to wealthy neighborhoods), but attempt to block school choice for immigrant families.

In their own words:

We chose a charter public school because the traditional public schools in Oakland were not safe and had bad results, especially for Latino children like ours. Today the traditional schools are running out of paper, and the district is making harsh budget cuts after wasting millions in new money from the state. Voters have approved millions of dollars in bonds, but the district has made almost no progress building and fixing schools, and some schools have dangerous levels of lead in the water.

They end their op-ed with a call for political officials to stop attacking charter schools and to govern their districts in a way that supports all public schools, traditional and charter alike.

___

I understand the desires of the school members: as locally elected officials, they want the power to control public education in their city, so that they can best fulfill their duty to children. I get it.

I understand the desire of the immigrant families: as families with children in public schools, they want the power to find the best public schools for their children, so that they can best fulfill their duty to their own children. I get it.

While I get both arguments, I find the second op-ed to be more compelling than the first.

I don’t think local elected government officials should have the power to prevent immigrant families from partnering with educators to find the right fit for their children.

Senior signing day: from a bar in Houston to the White House

Chip and Dan Heath are brothers and co-authors. Chip teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Dan teaches at Duke.

The most recent book is called The Power of Moments.

The book opens with a story. The story begins with Chris Barbic (a friend and a colleague) and Donald Kamentz sitting in a bar after another long day in the founding of YES Prep, a charter school network serving low income students in Houston. They were watching ESPN’s coverage of “senior signing day” – the event where star high school athletes announce where they’ll be attending college.

Chris and Donald believed what their students were accomplishing was every bit as impressive as what these star college athletes had accomplished.

So a few months later (charter schools founder work quickly), Yes Prep held it’s first senior signing day. Each senior took the stage and announced where he or she would attend college in the fall, dropping a t-shirt or pennant with their chosen school’s mascot. Leading up to the day, students kept their final school decision a secret from friends. After each announcement, the room erupted with applause. Everyone cried, and a tradition was born.

You can watch a YES Prep senior signing day highlight reel here:

Soon other schools charter school began to hear about YES Prep’s amazing event.  If YES Prep could create an amazing moment to celebrate their students, why couldn’t other schools do the same?

So steal they did.

Here’s Achievement First’s signing day (grab a tissue).

Here’s IDEA’s signing day video (grab some more tissues):

Then, in New Orleans, Josh McCarty, a friend and colleague of mine at New Schools for New Orleans, stole the idea for the whole city, and, I believe, we had the country’s first citywide signing day.

But we were soon out scooped, with senior signing day going to another (national) level: Michelle Obama made college signing day a signature part of her Reach Higher campaign. My guess is that Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under Obama, spread the idea, as he had spoken at YES’ signing day in 2010. In the video below, Michele Obama asks high school seniors to take selfies with their new college gear and tweet it with the hashtag #reachhigher.

Here’s a picture of her and her husband celebrating signing day together:

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 5.36.44 PM.png

Charter schools have been an incredible source of innovation for public schools. From Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion to Summit’s personalized learning platform to Achievement First’s open curriculum to Valor’s social learning program – great public charter schools are making all public schools better.

The senior signing day story, which begins in a bar in Houston and goes all the way to the White House, is an amazing example of what happens when you let great educators open new public schools.

Every once in a while, a school opening is the origin of a new national tradition.

So please: go to a senior signing day. And while you’re celebrating incredible students, give a silent thanks to Chris and Donald.

 

 

If you support neighborhood schools you also (unintentionally) support segregated schools

A reminder: for the foreseeable future, supporting neighborhood schools means de facto supporting segregated schools.

The reason is obvious: neighborhoods in our country are highly segregated.

I think our country would be better if our neighborhoods weren’t segregated, but I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

So if every kid goes to their neighborhood school, we will have segregated schools.

There are a couple ways out of this.

We could restructure enrollment and bussing rules to avoid segregation, but this would mean that a lot families would have to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods.

And  I don’t think it’s the rich families that are going to send their children to poorer neighborhoods.

So we’ll need to be bussing in low income students into rich neighborhoods. This might be the right thing to do, but that means a lot of low income students won’t be attending their neighborhood schools.

It also means we’ll likely have a lot of white flight, which, while unfortunate, is neither good for integration nor a city’s tax base.

The other option is to create all choice systems and allow schools to preference students in a way that increases socioeconomic integration (this could be done through a unified enrollment algorithm).

For this strategy to be successful, schools will have to proactively create enrollment rules that increased integration, and families will have to proactively choose schools with this mission.

This will obviously be a slower process than forced integration via non-choice bussing systems.

But I think it will be much more durable.

Ultimately, you can’t force people to integrate our current version of segregated schools if they don’t want to. They will either move or kick out the superintendent who forces it. As a country, we rightfully changed the laws that forced segregation, but we’re still left with the fact that many people don’t really want integration, at least not if it involves any bit of giving up of privilege.

So, no, you can’t force integration. But you can give educators the opportunity to say that their school will prioritize integration. And you can make it easier for families to choose these schools.

The road to school integration is not through neighborhood schools. And it’s not through forced enrollment patterns.

The road to school integration is through people actually wanting it, and for government to create open systems that allow these desires to be actualized.

If you do nothing, people will attend their segregated neighborhood schools.

If you force it, they will flee.

If you build it, they might come.

What can we learn from the most driven and knowledgeable public school parents?

This is the second blog post in a row about learning from experience and observation rather than research.

I sometimes anchor a bit too much on research and am trying to balance this mindset with a stronger observational approach.

___

One common critique of charter schools is that they draw the most driven knowledgeable families away from the traditional public school system.

According to this argument, we should be a bit suspicious of charter school test score gains, and we should be very worried that the remaining students left in the traditional system will include very high concentrations of at-risk students.

I think there is some merit to the first critique of inflated test score effects, but there’s enough positive results from randomized controlled experiments of high-performing charter schools that I’m not too worried about it.

I do worry a lot about concentrating the hardest to reach students in a smaller and smaller number of traditional schools. This definitely occurred in New Orleans, where the last 20% of charter students were much harder to serve than the first 20%.

My hope is that this issue can be somewhat ameliorated by cities directly replacing their most underperforming schools and using unified enrollment systems to make finding a better school easier for all families.

___

But there is something odd about critiquing charter schools based on the fact that they attract the most driven and knowledgeable parents.

Charter detractors are basically admitting that the more parents know the more likely they are to want to attend a charter school.

This is a strong argument for charter schools.

It would be useful to better understand why the most driven and knowledgeable parents are so drawn to charter schools. Is it because of increased test scores? A hope for better peers effects? Are they simply running away from something that is not working for their kid?

I’m not sure. The emerging research coming out of unified enrollment systems is helpful on this front, but it’s all correlational, so we should be cautious.

But the fact that the most driven and knowledgeable parents are seeking out charter schools increases my belief that charter schools are a positive force for families.

Sometimes simply watching what people do is a great way to learn.

What can we learn from school board meetings?

In forming opinions on policy, it’s good to balance research and lived experience.

Research is an invaluable tool in helping us test our beliefs, but the most rigorous research is limited to what can be measured, and not everything can be measured.

When it comes to public school policy, attending school board meetings has been a major part of my lived experience.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended two different types of school board meetings: elected school board meetings and non-profit charter school board meetings.

 

The elected school board meetings I’ve attended  range from dysfunctional (school board members screaming at each other) to misguided (school board members discussing random topics that have little to do with governing public schools) to sometimes useful (reasoned debate on systems level policy).

Unfortunately, I’ve attended many more dysfunctional and misguided elected school board meetings than I’ve attended useful elected school board meetings.

The non-profit charter school board meetings tend to be much more productive. More often than not, the board members are focused and knowledgeable. This is especially true of larger non-profit charter networks, where the board has been around for over a decade and governed through organization scaling.

Yes, I’ve attended a few dysfunctional charter school board meetings, but they are not the norm.

This lived experience in attending board meetings has shaped my policy views. Based on a decade of attending board meetings, I believe that non-profit boards will be better at governing schools than elected boards will be.

I do believe we need democratic oversight over our public schools. Elections allow us to debate values, and these values should shape how we oversee our public schools.This oversight can come in a variety of forms, from elected boards to mayoral control. The New Orleans elected school board, for example, oversees a nearly 100% non-profit charter schools system.

But while we need elections to debate values, we don’t need elections to govern individual or networks of schools.

My lived experience leads me to believe that this duty is best held by non-profit boards.

Most students in NOLA whose school is closed end up in one of their top choices for the following year. Here’s how.

This post from Ed Navigator is worth reading. It covers schools closures in New Orleans.

Over ten years after Katrina, and under an elected school board, New Orleans continues to selectively close underperforming schools.

I view this as a good thing, given the growing body of research that shows that school closures help kids when the students end up in better schools.

New Orleans uses a unified enrollment system to help kids get into better schools.

The unified enrollment system gives preference to students whose schools were closed the year before. If your school was closed, the algorithm bumps you to the top of the list for any school you want to get into.

Ed Navigator works with families whose schools have been closed, so that they can help select great schools.

The result?

This year, 87% of students who attended a closing school and used the enrollment system received on of their top three choices for the next school year.

94% of the students will now attend a school that is rated higher by the state’s grading system.

The system is by no means perfect. My biggest critique is that the state’s grading system still relies too heavily on absolute test scores (rather than growth). I also understand the counterarguments that government should never close schools and should instead let enrollment patterns (driven by parental choice) determine which schools grow and which close.

But I would rather have the New Orleans enrollment and closure system than just about any other big city system in the country.  In too many cities, really bad schools stay open for too long. And if anything happens to them, kids often end up in schools that are just as bad.

This is not what happens in New Orleans.

It’s also great to see Parag Pathak (and his colleagues) work in action. Parag recently won the John Bates Clark award in part because of his contributions to working on unified enrollment systems.

It’s rare that an idea goes from the ivory tower to think tanks to actual implementation by a democratically elected body to  helping citizens.

This is really great to see. And really great for kids in New Orleans.