Fordham Continues to Advocate Playing with Fire

June 25, 2014

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Imagine the following playground scenario:

Tommy: Hey guys, I have a great idea! Let’s all go play with fire! It’ll be fun!

Cate: No way, Tommy. Playing with fire is very dangerous. Someone could get hurt!

Jay: Cate’s right. I used to think playing with fire was a good idea, but I’ve seen other kids get burned.

Milt: Yeah, plus, there are lots of ways to have fun without playing with fire!

Tommy: Friends, you’ve taught me an important lesson about the dangers of fire. Okay, here’s my new idea: let’s all go play with fire, but if other kids don’t want to, then playing video games is totally cool too. How’s that sound?

If you find Tommy’s response puzzling, then you’re likely to find the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “revised” approach to educational choice and accountability equally puzzling.

In the debate between parental choice and top-down government mandates, the Fordham Institute follows Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Fordham supports choice, but argues that the only way to prevent parents from choosing “bad” schools is to regulate them out of existence. In January, Fordham released a “toolkit” for policymakers that advocated requiring all private schools to administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) and publish the results as a condition of accepting school vouchers or even tax-credit scholarships. Lower-performing schools would be forbidden from accepting students with vouchers or scholarships going forward.

Fordham’s proposal elicited a torrent of criticism. Andrew Coulson, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and I argued that their approach would stifle educational diversity and innovation. Jay Greene noted that standardized tests capture only a fraction of the benefits of educational choice. James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute pointed to the evidence that parents hold a range of legitimate views regarding what constitutes quality. Robert Enlow, President of the Friedman Foundation, reminded Fordham that such top-down accountability has not worked in government schools—something that Fordham itself once lamented when it called certain test-based accountability measures an “illusion.” Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute expressed concern that without any clear limiting principle, mandating state tests could easily lead to mandating “certified teachers, a state-approved curriculum, state-approved facilities, a state-approved plan of emergency services,” etc.

Last week, Fordham’s incoming Executive President, Michael Petrilli, offered what he called an “olive branch” to Fordham’s critics:

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose.

Petrilli then explained that Fordham has updated its “toolkit” accordingly. But if you expected that recognizing “the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation” would mean abandoning the push to mandate state assessments (i.e. – Common Core tests), then Fordham’s “revised” approach will leave you scratching your head. In the “revised” toolkit, Fordham recommends that state policymakers:

Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments. (While we prefer state assessments as policy, we think any widely respected test that allows for ready comparison against other schools or districts is a reasonable compromise);

In case you missed it, Fordham’s “revision” is in the parentheses. Like little Tommy, Fordham claims to recognize the risk of playing with Common Core fire but continues advocating for exactly that (unless they need to compromise for political purposes, in which case other tests are totally cool “a reasonable compromise”). If Fordham truly recognizes the “risk to private-school autonomy and innovation” that Common Core poses, then why is it still calling mandatory Common Core testing as an initial preference?

Petrilli concluded by calling for “a round of Kumbaya” and then getting “back to work on expanding great educational options to lots more children nationwide.” However, expanding educational options should mean more than just which school best teaches to the Common Core tests. By all means let’s work on expanding educational options… but let’s do it right.


Let’s Search for Sweet Spots, but with modesty please

June 5, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a number of friends who have either helped develop or have signed on to a Statement of Principles regarding a three sector reform strategy and what they view as a desirable level of state oversight of private choice programs.  This post will work better for you if you go and read the document first.

The needle starts to scratch across the vinyl for me at:

Even with the expanded choice to the private sector, they also have produced modest results.

This has become a mantra in recent years, but I believe that this statement reflects an incomplete understanding of the research results, and specifically a lack of understanding regarding our random assignment studies of voucher programs. The basic takeaway from the random assignment studies in my view is as follows: the test score impacts are modest but often statistically significant within the three year window that we can reliably study them.

So the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program offered $6,400 vouchers to very low-income inner city parents whose other options were to attend a district spending $14,000 per child and/or charter schools spending somewhere between the voucher and district spending.  We have several random assignment studies of the test score impacts that find that the experimental group basically stays on grade level (a triumph for poor inner city children) whereas the control group declines year by year.  You get to watch this process for about three years before the random assignment breaks down on you.

What happens to test scores after Year 3?  No one knows for sure- these studies fall apart over time.  We do know things however about what happens regarding high-school graduation, college attendance, college persistence, etc.  Borrowing a slide that Pat Wolf presented at the Alliance for School Choice conference:

Slide11

So basically you are less likely to graduate in 5 years (first red column) because you are more likely to graduate on time, less likely to graduate from a two-year college (second red) because you are more likely to be going to a four-year college.  The blue columns are all positive impacts from having been a choice student.

Now if you are determined to cling to the “modest” camp by saying that you wish these impacts were even larger, well, I do too.  I also wish that Chuck Norris’ tears really did cure cancer.  At this point it might be appropriate to raise the question as to just how much a positive impact we should reasonably expect from a program giving profoundly disadvantaged children a $6,400 coupon.  Although we don’t know what happens after a few years of random assignment study, those graduation figures ultimately are far more important than 6th grade math scores.

Being far more likely to graduate from high-school and college for less than half the money sounds like a triumph to me, albeit one that we could and should hope to improve upon through more robust program designs.  The standard here should not be to expect MPCP to transform every last profoundly disadvantaged inner city child into a Dean’s List Ivy Leaguers.  Rather in judging the impact of MPCP we should look at it on a return per dollar invested basis.  When you look at it appropriately through this ROI it is clear that the return on MPCP has been quite good, and that we should be looking for ways to get even more of it.

Then I got to this statement:

We know that smart accountability measures can ensure that public money and young lives are not invested in low-performing private schools.

The statement offers no evidence to support this claim, and moreover the claim itself dodges the more important question of costs and benefits to regulation.  Is it possible for “smart” accountability to keep young lives out of low-performing private schools?  Sure it’s possible.  Smart training can ensure that I could go from being a 46-year-old policy wonk to heavyweight champion of the world. I mean it is possible right? Is it also possible, even highly likely, for the whole enterprise to go south on you in a variety of different ways? Yep, that’s very possible too.

Who is going to administer these smart accountability measures and who will administer them a few years later?  What about 25 years from now?  How often will these people do something they think is smart which proves to be otherwise?  Unless we want to have the Federal Reserve administer these programs, how long will it be until politics will subvert the process of “smart” technocratic policymaking?  Also like the Fed, the costs of technocratic mistakes may prove quite costly.

Even well-intentioned efforts at “smart accountability” could easily backfire.  Let’s take Louisiana as an example.  Louisiana policymakers decided to grade all their schools A-F based upon a state accountability test tied to the state academic standards, and then decided to create a mechanism to remove low-performing schools from eligibility to take new students.  This probably sounds clever at a Georgetown cocktail party, but in Louisiana two-thirds of the state’s private schools have decided to stay out of the program, denying thousands of seats to low-income children attending relatively poor performing public schools in one of the lowest performing states in the union.

Ooops.

Let’s take things a step further. Is it possible that the one-third of Louisiana private schools that chose to participate in the program may have had a selection bias towards being more on the financially desperate side than those that have decided to stay out?  I have no data to support that this in fact did happen, but who would be surprised if it in fact did happen?  The correlation between financial desperation and academic ineptitude often proves strong.  In such a case the initial impact of the regulatory regime might have precisely the opposite of what was intended with many higher performing schools choosing to keep their distance.  Worse still, it might create an incentive for private schools to engage in the same sort of gaming strategies that have been common in states with rising state test scores but flat NAEP scores- teaching to test items rather than to standards (Arizona is waving hello!).  Finally of course it is no triumph if the schools do actually teach the state standards because the whole idea of a choice program is to provide, well, meaningfully varying choices for parents.  If you want state tests and standards in Louisiana you already have thousands of options available to you in the form of district and charter schools.

In the end of the day, policymakers must make decisions about where to draw the line in such matters. We have no wrong or right answers here, only preferences. Personally I believe that choice programs should provide academic transparency to the public in ways designed to have the lightest possible touch on the curricular independence of schools.  I’m willing to sacrifice some level of private school participation in return for transparency.  Preferences will vary and we will learn things along the way through variation between programs.  What I think I have learned however is that Arizona’s transparency-light programs represent a costly obstacle to building broad support, and that the Louisiana and Indiana model has far too many private schools saying “thanks but no thanks.”

To my friends who crafted and signed on to this statement I say only that we should continue the dialogue and gather more information.  I don’t believe in regulation free programs nor do I expect or desire for us to pass any, so I agree with you to a degree. I however strongly suspect that many of you are underestimating the cost of regulation and overestimating the capacity of technocratic regimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Fix Voucher Regulations with This One Weird Trick!

May 30, 2014

Public Rules on Private Schools

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

One of the big controversies surrounding school choice programs is whether they tend to increase government regulation of private schools. Big, sweeping claims have been easy to come by; serious scholarship studying the question, while not nonexistent, has been rare. Today the Friedman Foundation makes a major new contribution by releasing the study “Public Rules on Private Schools.” It is one of the most careful, methodical analyses to date on this question.

The big revelation for me in this study is that government regulations associated with voucher programs (as distinct from other types of school choice programs) is disproportionately made up of paperwork and other compliance requirements. Programs can largely nullify the effects of these regulations by adding some additional funding to cover compliance costs. Some programs do this already. This seems like a no-brainer for legislators to start including in future bill design.

So for the most part the war between voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs seems to me to be blown way out of proportion. Top up the voucher for compliance costs and the differences become unimportant.

Check out this awesome slideshow for tons of information plus author Drew Catt’s spot-on demonstration of what “nerd hipster irony” looks like.


You know what I love about AZ tax credits? Every year I get a little older but they just keep getting 100% of private schools to participate…

May 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So yesterday here on the Jayblog we were discussing the fact that the Indy and Louisiana voucher programs only get a third of private schools to participate, while the Florida Step Up for Students program gets 71%.  If the main goal of the program is to broaden choices for parents, this is rather important. Jason Bedrick sent me an email asking what the private school participation rate is in the Arizona tax credit program. I replied that we probably could not know because there are so many STOs, but I was wrong.  The Arizona Department of Revenue has an answer: 337 private schools participate.

Pop over to the Digest of Education statistics for the number of private schools in Arizona- 340.

Allright…allright…ALLRIGHT!!!!

Now the AZ tax credit program has generated more than a little criticism over the years.  Keep in mind however that the three Notre Dame ACE academies on the south side of Tucson that I introduced you to last week would have closed years ago without it. Moreover, the financial transparency in the system has improved.  The Arizona Department of Revenue tracks the income of recipients by individual scholarship groups.  If you want to focus your tax credit donation on lower-income children, as Mrs. Ladner and I have done for the last decade, you need only select a scholarship group that fits your preferences.

In any case, approximately all Arizona private schools participate in the Arizona tax credit program, and the Arizona tax credit program does nothing to compromise the independence of private schools. I know that the program is not everyone’s cup of tea, and there are things about it that I would change if the people of Arizona were foolish enough to make me Emperor (fortunately they are not) but let’s recognize a strength when we see one: the AZ program was designed to expand parental options and it is doing just that.

 


Hey man, you got 2/3 participation in your choice program? Well it would be a lot cooler if you did…

May 6, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Having learned that one-third of private schools in Indiana participate in the scholarship program, I decided to check the stats on the Louisiana program.  Sure enough right on the front page is an announcement that less than one-third of Louisiana private schools participate.

Indiana and Louisiana share some broad similarities in program design- mandating of the state test, grading private schools A-F, etc.

By way of comparison, about 71% of Florida private schools participate in the Florida Step Up for Students program.  The Step Up program has a provision for testing, but allows the private schools options in which test to take. The state sponsors rigorous evaluations of the program and does apply rigorous financial accountability standards, but is otherwise largely content to allow parents to serve as the arbiters of the fit between the school and the student.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but it may also be the case that provisions like those in Indiana and Louisiana may come with a rather large cost in terms of broadening options for parents.

 

 


Render Unto Caesar what is Caesar’s

May 1, 2014

St. John's

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I had the opportunity to visit St. John the Evangelist school in Tucson. St. John is one of three Catholic schools on the south side of Tucson that entered into a partnership with the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame.

It was a deeply gratifying visit.

Greatschools rates the academic performance of nearby public schools as 2 out of 10 stars. St. John’s student body draws from an area of Tucson that is overwhelmingly Hispanic and low-income.  In the capital city of Phoenix, one frequently talk about how the RAND corporation found that if you “control for demographics” that Arizona NAEP scores are middling rather than rock bottom. This of course is a coded way of at least implying that we should not expect students like those filling the halls of St. John’s to learn.

Fortunately the St. John’s children are having none of such nonsense. I walked in to a kindergarten classroom, where I was greeted by a young man with a hand-shake.  He announced to me:

My name is Caesar and I am going to college in 2026!  Today we are studying letters and words.

I’m sure you can guess my reaction, something along the lines of:

!!!!!!!!!!!BOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!

The staff provided some details on the progress of the school during the partnership period. Through the hard work of the students and the faculty, both scores and enrollment have strongly improved.  The University has leveraged their network to create tax credit resources for the schools.  It is difficult work, but they are on their way.

Christian Dallavis, the Director of Notre Dame Ace Academies, provided the following slide as a part of a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year.  The slide is a representation of the decision tree used by Ace Academy folks to discover which of the Arizona choice programs for which students may qualify.

ND Ace Funding

 

If that looks more than a little convoluted, it is only because it is in fact convoluted. During the last session, choice advocates suffered an unfortunate setback in the Arizona House. Choice champion Debbie Lesko attempted to pass a provision to allow children living in high poverty zip codes to participate in the ESA program. Given that the entire state testing system is currently in complete chaos without anyone knowing even what test will be given to students next year, the D/F rated school provision seems more than a little unstable.

Now the alphabet soup groups are seizing upon a drafting error from last session in an effort to turn the minimum funding for general education students from $4,800 to $3,200. Mind you that the districts get around $9,000 per child. The Superintendent of Public Instruction has publicly stated that the legislative intent of the law is clear, but the alphabets blocked clarifying language from passing in the legislature and have threatened to file suit against the department if the Superintendent follows the clear intent of the law.

I know some of these opponents well enough to say with some certainty that they could not possibly see what I had seen, look students like Caesar in the eye, and tell him “Sorry Caesar the dysfunctional system down the street needs you as a funding unit.  I hope that whole 2026 thing works out for you somehow but the needs of the system come first.”  The basic humanity of choice opponents would prevent them from doing such a thing, but the actions of their organizations seek just such an outcome.

Caesar deserves a decent shot to succeed in life.  Arizona policymakers should do everything they can to give it to him. Moreover, we should give thanks that institutions like St. John’s are willing to work so hard to help him achieve his potential.

UPDATE Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal released a statement today saying that after careful study of the statute and consultation with legal counsel that he has instructed Arizona Department of Education staff to fund the ESA accounts in accordance with the legislative intent of the 2013 statute. Legal action designed to strip additional funding from students like those described above will commence in 5, 4, 3, 2…

 


Alaska House Passes Scholarship Tax Credits and A-F School Grading

April 9, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was already madly in love with Alaska after having visited in 2006.  Now United States Senate candidate Mead Treadwell (great guy) had me up and gave me some great advice. My flight left at something like 2:30 am (they like to have planes leave Alaska late and fill up in the lower 48 early) and so Mead advised me to go up to Talkeetna and recruit some climbers to do a flight seeing tour of Mount McKinley.  The first guy I found had a ZZ-Top style beard and was from Vermont, and then I found two yuppies from Boulder who were heading up to camp and climb for a week. We landed on the glacier and the whole scene looked like another planet, let’s call it “Hoth.”

The pilot reassured us that we had picked the right time to come (May) because the cold had snapped but the Grizzlies were still hibernating. Best $100 I ever spent.

Anyhoo, now I somehow love Alaska even more because last night the House passed both a scholarship tax credit program and A-F school grading.

 


Kansas Lawmakers Create Scholarship Tax Credit Program

April 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HB 2506 made it through the Kansas House and Senate last night and contains some significant education reforms, including a scholarship tax credit program, curbs on teacher tenure abuse and alternative teacher certification.  Congratulations to Kansas lawmakers and education reformers.  The “never say die” crew at the Kansas Policy Institute Dave Trabert and James Franko have earned a:

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!

for their dedicated, determinedly fact-based efforts to improve Kansas education outcomes.


I’ll Have a Dose of Confirmation Bias, Heavy on the Bias

March 24, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So how do private school students do in Science compared to public school students.  I wasn’t sure, so I went to the NAEP data explorer to find out.

Private school students outscore public school students, but private school students tend to be more affluent than public school students, and there can be differences in special need and language profiles. Fortunately the NAEP data explorer allows you to take such factors into account.  To maximize the comparison, we will only look at the NAEP science scores of children eligible for a Free or Reduced priced lunch under federal guidelines, and who have neither a special education nor an English Language Learner designation.  This is about as close to apples to apples comparison you can hope for in NAEP data.

So NAEP changed the framework of their Science exam in 2009, making the 2009 and later exams incomparable to those given before 2009. The comparison of general education poor children between public and private schools is sporadically available in both NAEP science frameworks.  You can’t compare old NAEP science to new NAEP science, but you can compare public and private school scores within each year.  So let’s start with 4th grade:

NAEP Science 4

 

Private school generic poor children outscored their peers in the public schools 2 out of 3 tries. Let’s look at 8th grade scores:

NAEP Science 8

Private school generic poor children outscored their peers three out of four times in 8th grade.  Let’s have a look at 12th grade science:

NAEP Science 12

So for those of you scoring at home, in 8 possible comparisons, private school general education poor children outscored six times.  It was close (within the margin of sampling error) a few times but every time the result was lopsided it was lopsided in favor of the private school children.  Quite frankly science scores should be higher in both public and private schools for low-income kids, but the available evidence does show an overall private school advantage. Unless you happen to be Stephanie Simon working through a sizable case of confirmation bias, in which case this is what you saw:

Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies.

Gosh, a billion dollars-that sounds scary! At least until you think of it as less than 80 percent of the Dallas Independent School District’s budget.  Still, this is an outrage! We should put a stop to it immediately!

Except…how is it that these kids at hillbilly flat-earther private schools keep managing to score about the same or more often better than their public school peers on the NAEP Science exams? Does the NAEP science framework ask a battery of questions on the Book of Genesis?  Does learning how to play Duelling Banjos wire the mind for multiple choice science exams?

Um, no. Not so much. Private schools just do a better job teaching science overall.  Ms. Simon has written a hyperbolic story about a crisis that does not exist.  The available evidence suggests that if we eliminated all funding for choice programs that it would result in a net decrease in knowledge of science.

If Ms. Simon wants to pull the funding for private schools based on science achievement, the river needs to flow both ways and we will have to pull the funding for an even larger number of public schools on the same basis.  In the meantime, if Ms. Simon doesn’t like private schools, she always has the option of not enrolling her children in one. As an added bonus, her kids can learn science on Khan Academy if she happens to choose one of the many that do a poor job of teaching science.


Who’s “We,” Fordham-Sabe?

January 20, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before he had a sitcom, Bill Cosby used to have a series of Lone Ranger jokes in one of his old stand-up acts. In one part of the routine, the Ranger tells Tonto something like, “They outnumber us ten to one, so we’re going to ride down the hill full speed, we’re going to cut across right through their sights, then we’re going to engage them hand to hand. Any questions?”

“Just one, Kemo Sabe.”

“What’s that?”

“Who’s ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

That’s also the right answer to Fordham’s insistence that choice students must take state tests because, as Jay summarizes it, “we’ve got to do something!” That’s an accurate summary of the presupposition coming out of Fordham – you aren’t in favor of reform unless you think that you are the one to dictate what a good education looks like.

Yes, “we” have to do something to invent better ways of educating students. But who’s “we”? Having government standards to measure the government’s school system can be good, even if Common Core is not. However, even when government standards are good, and even when they’re applied only to the government system, they are not the way to reinvent education, because government – by its very nature – is not well designed to 1) innovate effectively, 2) persuade people that the innovations are effective, or 3) build institutions where the institutional culture accepts the innovations as good.

What government does do well is to create the structures of social transaction within which effective innovators and entrepreneurs can operate. The key strategy for education reform should not be to devise the innovations we need but to create structures that enable innovators and entrepreneurs to do so. The more we get caught up in devising the innovations ourselves, the further we move away from creating the conditions necessary for those who really can devise the innovations to do so.

Choice programs today are very poorly designed to support entrepreneurs. They ought to provide universal choice, a generous allotment of funds (though less than what we spend on the behemoth of government schooling) and freedom to innovate with minimal interference. Entrepreneurs need three things to succeed: clients, capital and control. You need a customer base of people who want your service because it makes their lives better. You need those customers to be willing and able to pay you; that’s what sustains the organization that delivers the service. And you need to be free to provide the service according to your own entrepreneurial vision and the needs of your clients, not according to standards devised by politicians and bureaucrats.

See the study I did for Friedman on The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice for much, much more, including data on the impact choice programs are having (or, more frequently, are not having) on the composition of the private school sector.


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