“Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius! Oh, Ohhhh, Dr. Zaius!”

July 24, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Andy Smarick’s proposal for private choice school authorizers deserves a closer look. I can understand why at first it might prompt smart people like Jason Bedrick to cry out, as Matt put it, “get your charter law off me, you dirty ape!” But in the original report, Smarick doesn’t flesh out the idea in detail, and we all know who’s in the details. There are certainly some ways of designing such authorizers that would lead me to join Jason’s outcry against them. But there are also possible ways of designing them that would make me say, “I can siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!”

Authorizers could improve rather than hinder the regulatory regime of private choice schools, if a few key points were observed:

  1. The creation of authorizers must be accompanied by the removal of the arbitrary, meaningless restrictions on school startups that currently prevail in many choice programs. In Louisiana, you have to have already been operating for three years before you’re eligible! Why not just stick a sign in the window that says “No Startups Need Apply”? These restrictions are put in choice programs to protect existing private school systems from healthy competition. They’re one of the worst problems with existing school choice programs, because the ability to attract educational entrepreneurs who create new kinds of schools, not just another iteration of the same mediocre systems we have now, is the real key to advancing education through choice. If there is any kind of sanity in the process (I know, I know) the creation of authorizers must be accompanied by the removal of all these outrageous restrictions. Protecting us from fly-by-night shysters is what we have the authorizers for.
  2. While we’re at it, if we create authorizers we should also be able to get, in return, programs that are more broadly designed to attract entrepreneurs rather than simply to service the existing private school system. No more $1,000 scholarships that do no more than grease the wheels for people to attend existing private schools.
  3. It would be critical to have multiple authorizers, the more the better. School startups that get turned down by one could go to another. Meanwhile, the blob would have great difficulty neutralizing or colonizing more than a handful of the authorizers, so the majority would remain free.
  4. Combining #1-3, there should be several authorizers whose specific mission is to attract entrepreneurs who want to create new kinds of schools. By all means, let the diocese be an authorizer. But there should also be authorizers tasked with attracting and approving responsible entrepreneurs.
  5. There should also be a process for creating new authorizers that doesn’t require new legislation. That way the pool can be regularly refreshed with new choice-friendly authorizers every time the friends of choice are in power. The optimal plan is not so much to prevent the authorizers from being neutralized or colonized, though we should do that if we can, as to make it easy for people who support choice to create a raft of new authorizers every time they’re in power.
  6. Authorizers should be a locus of brand identity, and thus choice-based accountability. Everyone should know which schools are authorized by whom, so parents can reward the good authorizers and punish the bad ones. The more we encourage that, the less coercive accountability we will need.

And, of course, there is no need for the authorizer route to be strictly alternative to the traditional route. It could be both/and – schools are admitted to choice programs in the traditional way if they meet the traditional (ridiculous) requirements, but authorizers are added on as an additional way to approve schools for participation if they don’t meet those requirements.

The Siren’s Call of Policy Influence

July 22, 2014

I’ve written several times before about education policy analysts who confuse the constant sound of their own voice for actual influence over policy.  There are many faux education experts who have never really done anything or studied anything that would support their self-proclaimed status as experts.  And the foundations that fund them are making a foolish mistake in thinking that the non-stop chattering of these faux experts actually influences anybody.  Education policymaking is a long game that requires investment in serious inquiry.  Solid evidence, not an insular circle of blabbering, moves the elite consensus and creates the conditions for enduring policy changes.

The problem is that not only are foundations remarkably under-funding serious inquiry, but the academics who should be engaging in that research are increasingly drawn to the siren’s call of policy influence.  Yes, it is a proper goal of policy research to have influence, but that influence is the end-product of serious work, not the thing for which the quality of one’s work and intellectual standards should be sacrificed.

The latest example of academics attempting to trade their integrity for influence can be found in Ray Fisman’s Slate article on vouchers in Sweden.  Fisman is a Harvard-trained economist who has rapidly risen to a named professorship at Columbia University’s business school.  He rose so rapidly because he has done some excellent work published in leading journals.

But even highly capable scholars have difficulty resisting the temptation to abandon their standards for their imagined ability to influence policy.  So, Fisman has also become a columnist for Slate.  His columns are nothing like his scholarship.  In particular, his recent piece on vouchers in Sweden was filled with glaring errors of fact as well as obvious flaws in causal reasoning.  Andrew Coulson has an excellent take-down of Fisman’s piece over at Education Next.  You should read Andrew’s entire piece, but some highlights of Fisman’s sloppiness include:

  • Fisman claims “more Swedish students go to privately run (and mostly for-profit) schools than in any other developed country on earth.”  In fact, only about 14% of Sweden’s students attend private schools, significantly less than the 68% in Belgium as well as higher numbers in a host of other developed countries.
  • Fisman’s only “evidence” that vouchers have harmed achievement in Sweden is that PISA scores have dropped in that country over the last decade.  The Razorback football program has also gotten a lot worse over the last decade.  By Fisman’s causal reasoning, perhaps Swedish vouchers are responsible for my poorly performing Hogs.  This is the type of mis-NAEP-ery we expect of Marc Tucker or Diane Ravitch, not a Harvard-trained economist in a named professorship at Columbia.

Fisman would never make such sloppy mistakes in a journal submission or conference presentation.  His colleagues would laugh at him.  But nothing seems to deter Fisman or other would-be Paul Krugmans from making laughable claims in the popular press.  Maybe academics should not be given such a free pass for whatever they write outside of journals.  Maybe the credibility of their scholarly work and their status within the academic community should also be called into question if they are willing to be so reckless.

Look, I know from personal experience the lure of policy influence.  I’ve been in the think-tank world and taken part in the silly collection of “metrics” of influence to get foundation funding.  And I’ve felt the temptation to claim expertise in areas beyond my scholarship.  But we all have to resist these temptations if we are to maintain the standards of academic work.  We need to maintain those standards so that research can remain credible and be the source of true, long-run policy influence.


July 22, 2014

(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)

“Any other team wins the World Series, good for them. They’re drinking champagne, they get a ring. But if we win, on our budget, with this team… we’ll have changed the game. And that’s what I want. I want it to mean something.” – Billy Beane, Moneyball

The cost of baseball players once was largely ignored by the media and fans.  It was crude and destroyed the fun of the game, many thought, to inject hard-nosed considerations of efficiency into America’s pastime.  Then came Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” and the transformation of the Oakland A’s from perennial losers to a competitive and highly efficient professional baseball team, all due to careful consideration of how much bang players delivered for the buck.

Fast forward almost 25 years to the present day.  The cost of public education is largely ignored by both the media and education policymakers.  Many people think it is awkward, complicated or destroys the intrinsic and infinite worth of public education to inject hard-nosed considerations of efficiency into America’s schools.  Then came 2012, the first school year in history in which total U.S. government spending on public education went down.  Suddenly, money has to matter in public education, because apparently there isn’t an endless supply of it.

Today my colleagues and I at the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas released The Productivity of Public Charter SchoolsThe report is the first national study of the efficiency of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, and to tie funding to student achievement.  Across all 28 states in our study we found that public charter school sectors were more cost effective and/or generated a higher return on investment (ROI) than traditional public schools.  Public charter schools are like the Oakland A’s of public education — and last time I checked, the A’s had the best record in baseball.

Let’s start with cost effectiveness, or the amount of output generated per unit of input.   The charter school sectors in 21 states and D.C. all produce higher math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) per $1,000 of per-pupil revenue than do the traditional public schools sectors in their respective states.  On average across our national sample, charters put up 17 more NAEP points in math and 16 more points in reading for every Cleveland they receive, which amounts to charters being 40 percent more cost effective in math and 41 percent more cost effective in reading.

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What really matters, though, is how learning translates into future economic rewards for the student and society, commonly measured as ROI.  The charter sectors in 20 states and D.C. all outperform traditional public schools.  The weighted average ROI advantage from charter schooling across the national sample is almost 3 percent for a single year in a charter school and 19 percent if students spend half of their K-12 education in a charter.

Skeptics might say, “Charters gain their efficiency advantage by disproportionately admitting advantaged students.”  The data show this is not so.  A majority of the states in our sample have charter sectors that enroll a higher percentage of low-income students than their traditional public schools peers.  Although most of the charter sectors trail traditional public schools regarding the notoriously unreliable measure of special education enrollments, that gap is so small (3 percentage points) that it can’t plausibly explain the greater productivity of charters.  We used carefully matched samples of charter and traditional public school students from Stanford’s CREDO National Charter School Study to ensure that differences in student characteristics were unbiased.

pat post 2

Then what is behind the Money-Ed success of public charter schools?  Mathematically, the answer is simple.  Charters nationally are producing student achievement gains that are very similar to the levels in traditional public schools but receive about 30 percent less money per pupil.  Similar results at a lower cost explain the advantage for charters.  We can’t say for sure that charters would retain their productivity advantage over traditional public schools if they were funded on par with district-run schools, but it sure would be interesting to see what happens under something close to funding equity.  Instead of the Oakland A’s of the 2000s, playing competitively with 30 percent less payroll, equitably-funded charters might be the A’s of 2014, who look like world champions.

The Way of the Future in Assessment

July 17, 2014


We control the SAT, ACT, GED and AP. Who the hell are you?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Hope Matt doesn’t mind me borrowing his Way of the Future theme, but there’s no better way to point y’all to this fascinating article on people experimenting with ways to measure non-cognitive traits, like “heart” and “grit,” that have a huge impact on education and life outcomes.

While the article focuses on colleges using such measures to predict collegiate success of applicants, the measures are just as badly needed (if not more so) to change the way we measure success in K12. There is really no question that these traits, just like the cognitive outcomes we currently measure with standardized tests, are partly a result of genes and environment but also partly a result of school performance. We need a revolution in thinking about K12 that puts non-cognitive outcomes back at the center of education, where they belong. That isn’t likely to happen until we can measure these outcomes.

The early methods are still riddled with challenges, of course, as you would have to expect at this stage. And the people involved (as well as the reporter) have an unfortunate attachment to some of the usual nonsense about the evils of standardized tests. These may or may not be the people who invent the assessments we need. Often the first people to take on a tough new task are only clearing the way for greater lights to come. But there is no doubt about the need, and every little bit helps.

The Atlantic Article that Should Have Been Called “Why Poor Students Should Not Have to Attend Dysfunctional School Districts”

July 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A fascinating article in the Atlantic about the lack of textbooks in Philadelphia district schools would have been even more illuminating if the author had discovered that the district spends $20k per student per year.

The blindingly obvious conclusion to draw from this article is that plenty of money exists to get these students all the textbooks they need, but that the district simply has other priorities.  The district spends the money, they just spend it on something or someone else, and mysteriously classroom learning never makes to the top of a priority list.  These are not “poor schools” but rather wealthy schools that are poorly run and victimizing poor students in the process.

Bedrick: Get Your Charter Law Off Me You Dirty Ape!

July 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Okay so the title is a bit of an exaggeration but what the heck, there is a new Planet of the Apes movie out and we believe in giving our audience what they pay for around here at the Jayblog. What’s that you say? You guys read this blog for free? Oh yeah, that’s right. We write it just to entertain ourselves, I forgot.

Anyhoo, Cato’s Jason Bedrick raises questions worth debating about the new Friedman Foundation study by Andy Smarick over at Education Next.

We Will We Will FRACK You!!!

July 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The above gif is a 14 year time lapse, putting in tiny red dots for new oil wells (HT Mark J. Perry).  After watching this for a while, a few things spring to mind.

1. The motto of the University of Texas at Austin “We’re Texas. What Happens Here Changes the World” comes to mind.

2. Pennsylvania seems perfectly content to drill New York’s shale formation from just south of the border.  Memo to New York: fracking involves horizontal drilling, so you might want to rethink your ban.

3. Canada is just barely getting in on the action thus far, but western Canada has plenty of shale formations. So…

Hey you hosers! Don’t force us to sell our oil to China eh?

Just for the record I’d rather fill up my tank with gas refined from Canadian oil rather than line the pockets of various anti-American regimes. Pipelines please…

4. I have not heard much about Arkansas, but it looks like a boom going on in the north of the state (?)


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