Tag: charter school

Does Scholar Self-Interest Corrupt Policy Research?

The New York Times recently ran a story portraying the Gates Foundation as the puppeteer of American education policy, bribing or bullying scholars and politicians into dancing as it desires. Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, feels that the story misrepresented his position on the potentially corrupting influence of foundations, making it sound as though he were referring to the Gates Foundation in particular when in fact he was referring to the impact of foundations generally.

Hess told the Times, among other things, that

As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct. There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation. We’re all implicated.

Next Monday, the Cato Institute will publish a study titled: “The Other Lottery: Are Philanthropists Backing the Best Charter Schools?” In it, I empirically answer the titular question by comparing the academic performance of California’s charter school networks to the level of grant funding they have received from donors over the past decade. The results tell us how much we should rely on the pairing of philanthropy and charter schools to identify and replicate the best educational models. Considerable care went into the data collection and regression model. As for the description of the findings, it’s as simple and precise as I could make it. I doubt it will be hailed as exquisite.

Reply to Samuelson: It Is an Engineering Problem

In today’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson argues that the performance of U.S. public schools is at least adequate, and that the relatively low achievement of black and Hispanic students is to be attributed to history and culture rather than to our education system. These claims are not new, and I might well have ignored them if he hadn’t got my Irish up with the off-hand comment that “what we face is not an engineering problem.” (More on that in a second.)

First, let’s dispatch the claim that public schooling is off the hook for the poor performance of low-income minority children. I’m currently undertaking a statistical study of the performance of 78 separate charter school networks in California, relative to one another and to the state’s traditional public schools. To foreshadow the results, the performance differences within socioeconomic groups are enormous even after controlling for school-wide peer effects. Among low-income Hispanic students, across grades, schools and subjects, average scores at two of the top charter networks (American Indian Public Schools and Oakland Charter Academies) are roughly 4 standard deviations above the statewide traditional public school mean. Quatre. Quattro. FOUR.

To put that in perspective, effect sizes in social science research are normally evaluated based on Jacob Cohen’s rule of thumb that 0.2 standard deviations is “small”, 0.5 is “moderate”, and anything bigger than 0.8 is “large.” To put it further in perspective, the low-income Hispanic effect sizes of two of California’s most elite and academically selective public schools are closer to 2 S.D. So the top charter networks, which accept every student who applies, massively outperform elite public schools that actively select their students based on prior test scores. Consistently. Across grades and subjects. [Note that there’s also wide variation in performance among charter school networks, with many performing below the mean of traditional public schools. Further details when the paper is published in a few months].

So, no, public schooling is not off the hook. We know it is possible to dramatically raise the achievement of low-income minority students above the current public school level. The problem is that we lack a system for reliably replicating the good schools and crowding out the rest. And what kind of problem is that? Even Wikipedia knows the answer:

Engineering is the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build… systems… and processes that safely realize solutions to the needs of society.

Engineering is just a broad set of tools for finding practical solutions to complex problems. One of the most useful of those tools is an aversion to reinventing the wheel, so engineers always ask how the kind of problem they’re addressing has been approached previously, in other places, even in other fields. When possible, they adapt proven solutions to the problem at hand.

So let’s all be engineers for a day on January 28th and hear what education experts from Sweden and Chile have to say about how their nations have been encouraging the replication of good schools. You can register for this unique lunchtime event here.

Why is Waiting for “Superman” Pushing Kryptonite?

You’ve probably heard it already, but if not, you should know that on Friday the documentary Waiting for “Superman” – from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim – will be opening in select theaters around the country. The film, about how hard it is to access good education in America thanks to adults putting their interests first, follows several children as they hope beyond hope to get into oversubscribed charter schools. It is said by those who’ve seen it to be a tear-jerker and call to arms to substantially reform American education.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t promote real, essential reform: Taking money away from special-interest dominated government schools and letting parents control it.

The movie does flirt – from what I know, that is, without having yet seen it – with school choice, lionizing charter schools. But let’s not forget that while many charter schools and their founders have tremendous vision and drive, charters are still public schools, and as such are easily smothered by politically potent special interests like teacher unions. Moreover, while charter schools are chosen, charter schooling still keeps money – and therefore power – out of the hands of parents. Together, these things  explain why there are so many heartbreaking charter lotteries to film: there is almost no ability or incentive to scale up good schooling models to meet all the desperate demand.  

But isn’t the goal for no child to have to wait for Superman? If so, then why not give parents the power to choose good schools (and leave bad ones) right now by instituting widespread school choice? Indeed, we’re quickly losing room in good institutions because parochial schools – which have to charge tuition to stay in business – simply can’t compete with “free” alternatives. If we were to let parents control education funds immediately, however, they could get their kids into those disappearing seats while the seats are  still around, and we would finally have the freedom and consumer-driven demand necessary to see good schools widely replicated.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly – to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination – than to centralize power in one place.

The people behind Waiting for “Superman” are no doubt well intentioned, and their film worth seeing. But pushing kryptonite is pushing kryptonite, and it has to be stopped.

Charters No Substitute for Private Innovation

I wrote about this private school in South Carolina last year. The Voice for School Choice has a new video highlighting the great work of the Eagle Military Academy, which works with many kids the public schools cannot or will not educate.

There’s a lot of talk lately about the transformative power of some charter schools, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many secular and religious private schools have been saving kids all along with no public funds and little or no recognition from the elite opinion class.

We need to open up choice to these schools as well, not just public charter schools that cannot provide the breadth and depth of experiences offered by private schools.

Public charter schools are no substitute for full school choice through education tax credits.

Race to Domination

Today’s the day that states must submit their applications to the U.S. Department of Education to compete for round-one “Race to the Top” grants. But no worries if your state’s a little behind: Not only will there be another application round for the $4.35-billion dash-for-cash, but as President Obama announced today, he wants a $1.35-billion sequel to what was supposed to be a one-time, stimulus-funded contest.

The important question, of course, is whether sponsoring this race is worthwhile for federal taxpayers. The clear answer is no.

Sure, in response to RttT states have been raising charter-school caps, allowing teachers to be evaluated using student performance, and instituting other changes, but they’ve done little of real substance. Just raising caps won’t make it much easier to get good, competitive charter schools since most of the charter-supply problem revolves around over-regulation and painful authorization processes. And while states have eliminated prohibitions on using student test results to evaluate teachers, they haven’t done much to actually base teacher evaluations on student performance or other meaningful metrics.

What has RttT done that is of substance? Unfortunately, push yet more power into federal hands, forcing  states and districts to jump through all manner of hoops for a chance to get back some of their citizens’ money. Indeed, it is becoming painfully clear that President Obama intends to put Washington firmly above the states in the hierarchy of education power.

For his $1.35 billion RttT expansion, President Obama plans to allow districts to directly compete for federal funding, bypassing states completely. And then there’s his crusade for national curricular standards. His administration has been talking up “common” standards since almost day one, and in the ”fact sheet“ accompanying the RttT expansion announcement the first bullet states that RttT emphasizes “designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards.” 

Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the “states” working “jointly” thing, or utterly unbelievable administration denials. If the feds are paying states to adopt common standards then those standards will be de facto federal. Either that, or the feds will let states adopt any old joint standards and still get paid. Six of one bad thing, half dozen of the other…

Thankfully, there is resistance to Obama’s bribe-to-the-top scheme. Texas, most notably, has refused to participate in RttT, with Gov. Rick Perry declaring that ”we would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.” And Texas is not alone: According to a New York Times article appearing yesterday, states and districts around the country are refusing to put on their track shoes and run for the federal funds. 

Still, federal money – taxpayer money – can be a tough thing for any elected offical to turn down. Sooner or later, if we let him, Obama will almost certainly find an amount that no state or district can resist.

Thursday Links

  • Doug Bandow:  “Congress has spent the country blind, inflated a disastrous housing bubble, subsidized every special interest with a letterhead and lobbyist, and created a wasteful, incompetent bureaucracy that fills Washington. But now, legislators want to take a break from all their good work and save college football.”

LA Times Hastens Toward the Light

With print media players disappearing faster than mosasaurs in the late Cretaceous, one would expect the last papers standing to be extra careful with their fact checking for fear of being blogged into extinction. One’s expectations would be mistaken.

Yesterday’s LA Times editorial on charter schools combined errors of fact and omission with a misrepresentation of the economic research on public school spending. First, the Times claims that KIPP charter public schools spend “significantly more per student than the public school system.” Not so, says the KIPP website. But why rely on KIPP’s testimony, when we can look at the raw data? LA’s KIPP Academy of Opportunity, for instance, spent just over $3 million in 2007-08, for 345 students, for a total per pupil expenditure of $8,917. The most recent Dept. of Ed. data for LAUSD(2006-07) put that district’s comparable figure at $13,481 (which, as Cato’s Adam Schaeffer will show in a forthcoming paper, is far below what it currently spends). Nationwide, the median school district spends 24 percent more than the median charter school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Next, in summarizing the charter research, the Times’ editors omitted the most recent and sophisticated study, by Stanford professor Caroline Hoxby. It finds a significant academic advantage to charters using a randomized assignment experimental model that blows the methodological doors off most of the earlier charter research. The Times also neglects to mention Hoxby’s damning critique of the CREDO study it does cite.

Finally, the Times’ editors are mistaken in claiming that district operating costs “do not necessarily go down” as large numbers of students migrate to charters. Economists find that districts reap significant cost savings as students leave – e.g., by cutting staff and consolidating buildings. The Times is claiming that the marginal cost of public schooling is essentially zero – that it neither costs more to educate one additional student nor less to educate one fewer student. In reality, the marginal cost of public schooling is generally found in the empirical literature to be near or above 80 percent of the total cost.

There are certainly reasons to lament the performance of the charter sector, and the Times’ editors even came close to citing one of them: its inability to scale up excellence as rapidly and routinely as is the case in virtually every field outside of education. Before getting into such policy issues, however, the Times should make a greater effort to marshal the basic facts.