Tag: charter schools

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….


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.