Tag: charter schools

How Sweden Profits from For-Profit Schools

The brass ring of education reform is to find a way to ensure that the best schools routinely scale-up to serve large audiences, crowding out the mediocre and bad ones. Over the past twenty years, the United States and Sweden have taken two very different approaches to achieving that goal, which I wrote about in a recent op-ed.

In the U.S., our main strategy has been for philanthropists to fund the replication of what they deem to be the academically highest-performing networks of charter schools. In a recent statistical analysis of California, the state with the most charter schools, I discovered that this is not working out particularly well for us. There is no correlation between charter school networks’ academic performance and the philanthropic funding they’ve raised. And, at any rate, charter schools still enroll less than 3 percent of the nation’s students.

In 1992, Sweden introduced a nation-wide public and private school choice program. Private schools went from enrolling virtually no one to enrolling about 11 percent of the entire student population–a figure that continues to grow with each passing year. Moreover, recent research finds that these new private schools outperform the public schools. And which private schools are growing the fastest? The chains of for-profit schools that are in greatest demand, and that have an incentive to respond to that demand by opening new locations. The popular non-profit private schools tend not to expand much over time.

Given that Sweden is universally regarded as a liberal nation, and the U.S. is seen as a bastion of capitalism, one wonders why they got to the brass ring first, and why it is taking us so very long to get there now that they’ve shown us the way.

Resurrect DC Choice, Bury the Lede

A Washington Post story from a couple of days ago touts survey results showing a majority of DC parents – 53 percent – finally giving the DC public schools a decent grade. That is, to be fair, a big story. But it certainly isn’t the most overwhelming finding in the survey. That you find mentioned deep in the article:

This year, Congress approved an extension of a federal program that provides vouchers to help students from some low-income D.C. families attend private or parochial schools. The survey found that nearly 70 percent of parents with children in the system support such tuition aid. Overall, nearly two-thirds of residents back vouchers, with positive sentiment higher among African Americans.

Perhaps even more interesting is that support for charter schools – the “it” choice reform because charters are still public schools – is downright tepid in comparison:

Residents remain ambivalent about the rapidly growing public charter sector, which serves 28,000 students. Forty-one percent consider the independently operated charters better than regular public schools; 42 percent say they are about the same. The favorable rating rises to a slight majority, however, among residents younger than 30.

The people of DC overwhelmingly want real, private-school choice. That’s the news about DC education that everyone should know!

Fordham Institute Reviews ‘The Other Lottery’

Gerilyn Slicker, of the Fordham Institute, offers a brief review of my study of charter school philanthropy in the latest “Education Gadfly” mailing, including the following observation:

Note, though, that this analysis is not without fault. The report doesn’t break down spending by pupil (only reporting aggregate grant-giving), nor does it account for student growth over time or for how long the charter networks have been operational.

All three of these concerns are worth raising, and the first two of them were actually addressed in the paper itself. The aggregate vs. per-pupil grant funding question is discussed in endnote 15:

Note that total grant funding, rather than grant funding per pupil, is the correct measure. That is because enrollment is endogenous—it is a product, in part, of earlier grant funding. So, controlling for enrollment (which dividing by enrollment would do) would control away some of the very characteristics we are trying to measure: the charter network’s ability to attract funding.

Student growth over time, as noted on page 5, cannot be measured using the California Standards Tests, because it reports results as averages of subgroups of students at the classroom level, not as individual student scores. And since the CST is the only source that has broad-based performance data for all charter and traditional public schools in the state, it is the only dataset that can be used to measure the performance of all California charter school networks. Fortunately, good controls for both student factors and school-wide peer effects are available, and the study’s results are consistent with earlier research, where it overlaps with that research.

The final concern, network age, is not one that I directly addressed in the study. There are a couple of reasons to expect it would not have much of an impact on the findings, however. First, a cursory look at the age of some of the top networks shows no particular pattern. American Indian and KIPP are both a decade old, and rank #1 and #7, respectively, out of 68 networks. Oakland Charter Academies and Rocketship are just a couple of years old, and rank #2 and #4, respectively. Similarly, some of low performing networks are brand new, while others, like GreenDot (ranked 42nd), are also over a decade old.

Second, in Appendix E, I show that network size and network academic performance are not significantly linked to one another. And since network age and network enrollment are likely to be strongly positively correlated with one another, it would be surprising if network age were correlated with performance when enrollment is not. That said, I’d probably include network age as a control in future, if I repeat the study, just to be on the safe side.

Ranking the Charter School Networks

Much of the response to the study I released last week has focused on the relative academic performance rankings of California’s charter school networks. That wasn’t the point of the study, which focuses on whether or not philanthropy + charter schooling can replace venture capital and competitive markets as a mechanism for scaling-up the best education services. Rather than try to fight the tide, I thought I’d just share the relevant rankings in an easy-to-link form, and once the debate about them dies down we can return to the larger policy point.

With that in mind, the first table below lists the top 15 charter school networks in terms of performance on the California Standards Tests, adjusted for student factors and peer effects. For comparison, two non-charter schools are included: the academically selective elite public prep schools Gretchen Whitney and Lowell–both of which feature in most lists of the top public schools in the country. There are 68 networks with the necessary data, but the lowest grant rank is 61 because eight of the networks received no philanthropic funding at all.

Next is a list of the charter networks that philanthropists have invested-in most heavily, with a view to replicating their models. Notice the minimal overlap? I repeat this comparison in the study with Advanced Placement test performance, and find the same pattern (it’s just slightly worse).

Every one of the above networks received substantially more grant funding individually than the top three highest achieving networks… combined.

New Cato Study: Philanthropists Are Replicating Charter Schools…at Random

In December of 1993, Bill Clinton remarked that figuring out how to consistently replicate great schools was the central education policy problem of our age. A generation later, it still is.

As someone obsessed with solving that problem, I wanted to know how well our current strategies for achieving it are working. One strategy in particular has attracted the bulk of the funding and attention over the past decade: philanthropists teaming up with what they consider to be the best networks of charter schools, and funding their growth. To find out how well they’ve been picking the winners, I compared the total amount of grant funding received by each of 68 California charter school networks over the past 8 years to the academic performance of those networks. The study is available here.

The correlation between grant funding and performance on the California Standards Tests turns out to be negligible (0.1). In fact, it’s half the size of the correlation between performance and the length of the networks’ names. As a check on those findings, I also ran the numbers on AP test performance. Those results are slightly worse: though the correlations are also negligible in magnitude, they’re actually negative in sign—more grant funding is associated with minutely worse AP performance.

In a nutshell, it’s as if philanthropists have been doling out funding to charter school networks by the same random lottery process by which oversubscribed charters are obliged to accept new students. While this will of course be viewed as a great disappointment by a great many people, it is better to have this information than to continue to labor in ignorance. There are places where excellence in education does routinely scale-up, and documenting them is the subject of my next project….

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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.

Random Assignment

The Brookings Institution released a new study today on charter schooling—assessing how well it’s working and what the federal government should do about it. One of the recommendations reads as follows:

Student participation in lotteries for admissions to any public [charter] school and the results of such lotteries should be a required student data element in state or district longitudinal data systems supported with federal funds.

Why? Because it would make it a lot easier to measure relative school quality, by permitting more widespread use of randomized, control group experiments. Experiments are certainly great from a researcher’s standpoint, but mandating that schools must admit students on a random basis has a catch:

an observer effect as subtle as an 80-foot fire-breathing robot. One of the reasons markets work is that exchanges are mutually voluntary, and producers and consumers don’t enter into an exchange unless each perceives it to be beneficial. If you eliminate the mutually voluntary character of an exchange in the process of trying to observe how beneficial it is to one of the parties, you’re affecting the very thing you’re trying to measure. It becomes more likely that you will have students assigned to schools that are not well equipped to serve their particular needs, injuring such students’ educational prospects.

Lottery admission to oversubscribed charter schools appeals to people’s desire for fairness, but a much better solution is to adopt a true market approach to education in which oversubscribed schools have not only the freedom but the incentives to expand as demand increases. For-profit enterprises, schools among them, do not generally ignore rising demand for their services. Kumon, the for-profit tutoring service, does not turn students away when it reaches capacity at a given location, it grows that location or opens a new one. As a result, it now serves about four million students in 42 countries.

Rather than figuring out how to ration good schools, why don’t we just unleash the market forces that will grow and replicate them?