Tag: charter schools

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?

Educational Freedom for Me but Not Thee, Says Obama on Today

To help kick off “Education Nation” – what NBC is calling an education-intensive week of news programming – Matt Lauer sat down with President Obama on this morning’s Today show. As expected, it was all talk, no real reform.

The interview started with a discussion of “Race to the Top,” the President’s $4.35 billion mechanical rabbit designed to make states run to implement ”reforms” the President likes. Lift caps on charter schools. Adopt national curriculum standards. Things like that. As his administration has done for months, the President spared no superlative prasing the thing, saying it is “the most powerful tool for reform that we’ve seen in decades.”

Uggh. RTTT did very little of substance, and even if the reforms seemed promising in theory we have absolutely no evidence of actual, positive effects on learning.

But the reforms don’t seem promising. Sure, RTTT got some states to lift caps on charter schools and eliminate some barriers to evaluating teachers using student test scores. For the most part, though, RTTT just prodded states to promise to plan to make reforms, and even things like lifting charter caps do little good when the problems go much deeper. Indeed, the only thing of real substance RTTT has done is coerce states into adopting national curriculum standards, pushing us a big step closer to complete federal domination of our schools. That’s especially problematic because special interests like teacher unions love nothing more than one-stop shopping.

But isn’t the President taking on the unions?

Hardly. While he has lightly scolded unions for protecting bad teachers, he has given them huge money-hugs to sooth their hurt feelings. Moreover, perhaps to further heal their emotional ouchies, on Today he offered union-hack rhetoric about teachers, going on about how they should be “honored” above almost all other professions, and how selfless and hard working they are.

Now, lots of teachers work hard and care very much about kids, but shouldn’t individual Americans get to decide how much they want to honor a profession, and how much they are willing to pay for the services of a given professional? Of course they should – who’s to say definitively whether a good teacher is more valuable than, say, a good architect?  – but when government controls education, it decides what teachers “should” get paid.

Unfortunately, the President chose to seriously inflate how long and intensively teachers work, saying they work so hard they are downright “heroic.” No doubt many do work very long hours, but research shows that the average teacher does not. A recent “time diary” study found that during the school year teachers work only only about 7.3 hours on weekdays– including work on and off campus – and 2 hours on weekends. That’s 18 fewer minutes per day than the average person in a less “heroic” professional job. Oh, and on an hourly basis teachers get paid more than accountants, nurses, and insurance unerwriters.

Most troubling in the Today interview, though, was the President’s failure to even mention school choice – giving parents, not politicians, control of education money – as even a potential means for reforming education.  He did, though, fully embrace his own educational freedom: When asked whether the DC public schools were good enough for his kids, he said no. That’s why they go to private school.

Here’s where we see the injustice of Obama’s  and other like-minded people’s “reform” offerings. Rather than giving real power to the parents and kids public education is supposed to serve, they insist on keeping them subject to the authority of politicians and politically potent special interests. They refuse to let all parents make the same choice the President has made, and they continue to force all Americans to hand huge sums of money over to government schools. Indeed, at the same time the President’s kids were heading off to private school, he was letting die an effective, popular, school-choice program in DC, a program that enabled poor families to make the same kinds of choices the President did.

But educational freedom isn’t just – or even mainly – about equality. It is the key to unleashing systemic accountability and innovation, two essential things the President at least says he likes. Unfortunately, he has embraced at best a third-measure for getting these critical things, throwing his support behind charter schools.

The root problems with charter schools are that they are still public schools, and they are largely under the control of the districts with which they want to compete. So if they ever start taking big chunks of kids from the traditional public schools – if they ever impose real accountability by providing real competition – they’ll just be crippled or crushed.

The President suggested, though, that the main value of charters is not accountability, but that they can test new things. But letting a few government schools be a little different from the others won’t produce meaningful, constant, powerful innovation, especially if charters are kept from truly competing for students.  Let parents take their education dollars to any school they wish, with no government thumbs on the scale, in contrast, and soon all schools will either have to get better, or go out of business. 

Unfortunately, it seems that freeing all parents to pursue the education that’s best for their kids is a reform much too far for this President. Nothing, it appears, can be allowed to truly challenge the government schools.

And the Last Shall Be First

Ten years ago, the American Indian Charter School scored last among Oakland’s public middle schools. Today it’s the top-scoring public middle school in all of California, according to the state’s own Academic Performance Index ranking.

What changed? It wasn’t the school’s demographics. American Indian’s enrollment is still almost all low income and minority, and contrary to almost everyone’s expectations, these inner-city kids now outperform their age-mates in even the wealthiest districts in California. And the school accepts all applicants, so, no, they don’t cherry-pick. The only cherry-picking that happens at American Indian is when elite East-Coast boarding schools recruit their middle-school graduates, offering them full board and tuition–perhaps a way of diversifying their socio-economic makeup while also raising their academic performance.

The success of American Indian is due to the no-holds-barred management and academic culture created by its former principal, Ben Chavis, and now perpetuated by the principals to whom he passed the baton following his retirement in 2007. Ben brought this school from last in Oakland to 4th in the state, and his successors have raised it to #1.

There are no cell-phones, no jewelry, no pants-saggin’. Show up late and you have to come to school on Saturday… and you’ll be expected to WORK. Assiduous effort is expected always and from every student, and the teachers and principals will do everything conceivable to encourage that effort.

The students come to feel–rightly–that they belong to something exceptional and important. They develop ties to one another and to the school, and work not only for their own success but to ensure they don’t let down their comrades. It’s impossible to really describe this in a blog post, but the story is powerfully-captured in the book Crazy Like a Fox.

It is a model that is replicable, but one that will only be replicated on a massive scale if we allow the free enterprise system to take hold in American education. When entrepreneurs have the freedoms and incentives to scale-up great schools, just as they now have the freedoms and incentives to scale up great coffee shops and cell-phones, we will see educational greatness proliferate. Until then, most of the children who would thrive in schools like Ben’s won’t have access to them. And that’s a tragedy.

PDK: Charter Schools Finally As Popular as Education Tax Credits Have Been Since Before Clinton’s Impeachment

The new PDK/Gallup education poll for 2010 is out, with the standard problems we can expect from this pro-government school/anti-choice outfit. Randi Weingarten even gets some column space! Oh Randi, you proud yet humble teacher. The “Commentary” sidebars in general were cringe-inducingly hackish and treacly.

It is interesting that there was a big spike in the percentage of people saying the biggest problem schools must deal with is a lack of funds. They’ve done a great job convincing folks there’s no money.

Of course, the way the question is worded, it encourages respondents to think about the difficulties schools are facing, which despite their flush accounts probably is dealing with funding issues. I’d like to see the answers to “What do you think are the biggest problems preventing the public schools of your community from increasing student achievement?” or some such question. And they certainly should ask how much people think is being spent. “The Research Organization formerly known as Friedman Foundation,” or TROFKAFF, has some great state polls showing how horribly misinformed most people are about the spending issue.

PDK is still boycotting the voucher question for a few years running.

But what is really indefensible is that they haven’t asked about education tax credits since 1999, just when the policy took off. There are now 12 credit programs in 9 states. Maybe support was far too high for their taste? In 1999 support was in the high 60’s, even after a battery of questions about vouchers and pitting public reform against private choice.

Good news for charter schools, which have finally pulled ahead of the support credits enjoyed during the Clinton administration, thanks no doubt to an increase in support among Dems/liberals courtesy of Obama lip-service. PDK; update please.

Foundations Need to Invest More in Private Education and Choice

Charter schools are the hot new thing.

OK, they aren’t all that new. But many people who used to have blanket objections to any increase in school choice now support (some form of) charter schools. President Obama, and even AFT President Randi Weingarten, say they support “charter” schools. The guy who made Al Gore’s documentary, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Planet, will soon release a film about choice and charter schools.

In the midst of the charter school hype, we need to remember that the private school system has been educating low-income kids longer, better, and more efficiently than charter schools. And charter schools are now sapping this tiny remaining redoubt of civil-society success and freedom in education.

Philanthropists who care about long-term, sustainable and dynamic improvement in the education system need to refocus. They need to pull back from the charter school mirage and invest in private school choice programs and private schools that are a proven, established success with at-risk children.

Fortunately, many philanthropists see the need to save private, often Catholic, schools for the poor:

Among his many achievements, [Robert W.] Wilson is the single largest benefactor of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Since 2007, he has donated over $30 million to inner-city Catholic education. He is also an atheist… Wilson belongs to an elite order: non-Catholic donors who are the patron saints of inner-city Catholic schools.

Read the whole article by Christopher Levenick in Philanthropy magazine. Public charter schools are often better than the regular ones. But charter systems are a pale government reflection of the legacy and possibilities found in private education.