On the Beautiful Messiness of Freedom

July 3, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As Independence Day approaches, Americans are preparing to celebrate our freedom. This year, I will be celebrating the many significant advances in educational freedom.

Freedom is messy. An education system in which providers are free to experiment means a system that is open to disruption. But what exactly does that mean? Here are just a few examples of how we might rethink key components of our education system—including student advancement, student assessment, and learning environments—from our friends at the Clayton Christensen Institute:

Rethinking Student Advancement

Since the late 19th century, most schoolchildren have advanced according to credit hours (or “Carnegie units”). All students of the same age were expected to advance at the same pace across all subjects. Unfortunately, that meant some students would struggle just to keep up while more advanced students were bored. A better way, argues Michael Horn, would have students advance according to skill, not age:

Reengineering our education system in this way would also allow us to shift from focusing on how many years of schooling a student has—faulty measures that focus on time but not learning—to measures that allow us to see what students have mastered in terms of their knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

“Do. Or do not. There are no credit hours.”

Providing every child with an individualized lesson plan sounds like a logistical nightmare, but Horn believes the blended-learning model could make it feasible:

Blended learning can support competency-based learning by providing the tools to bring it to scale. As online learning improves, schools will be able to rely on it to deliver consistently high-quality learning adapted to each student. That will free schools to focus on fulfilling other functions critical to students’ life success. Digital innovations are rapidly reshaping the world around us, but we can harness those same innovations to prepare our nation’s students to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Indeed, as Horn notes, New Hampshire has already begun moving toward competency-based education.

Rethinking Student Assessment

In the traditional classroom, teachers are tasked with both instruction and assessment. However, as Thomas Arnett explains, these two roles create tensions that can make the teacher’s job very difficult:

By way of comparison, the arrangement of having teachers act as both instructors and assessors is akin to asking the judges in a gymnastics competition to also coach the gymnasts leading up to the event, or asking a restaurant manager to conduct official food handling inspections at his restaurant. In many domains of life, we recognize that we create problematic conflicts of interest if we ask people who produce or perform to also provide the ratings of their outputs for external audiences. Yet, in education it is the norm to ask teachers to both coach their students and rate their students’ academic achievements.

One facet of this problem stems from the fact that traditional grades are highly subjective. Teachers’ assessments and grading systems are not developed using rigorous psychometric techniques to ensure validity and reliability. Instead, we ask teachers to develop their own grading systems based on their professional judgment and interpretation of learning standards and school policy. Translating standards into a rigorous and fair grading system is sticky business.

Arnett also highlights the conflict of interest teachers have because they “need to develop good relationships with their students’ and their students’ families”:

If their grading system is “easy,” few students and parents are likely to complain. On the other hand, if their grading system is “hard,” they can end up with a flood of phone calls and meeting requests from upset parents. This puts pressure on teachers to go easy on their students in order to keep everyone happy. But teachers who hand out “easy As” are not doing an adequate job preparing their students for future education and for life beyond school.

Overcoming these obstacles is not impossible—Arnett readily concedes that we “all know that the best teachers are highly skilled at navigating these dilemmas”—but he argues that it’s best not to put teachers in such dilemmas in the first place. One way to separate instruction and assessment, he proposes, is through online assessments. Compared to having teachers develop and grade their own tests, online assessments—done right—would be less expensive, provide crucial feedback to teachers and students more quickly, and would have greater validity and reliability. Moreover, they would free teachers to focus on instruction and shift the teacher from the role of referee to the role of coach.

Rethinking the Classroom

If schools are going to operate in new ways, it follows that we may have to rethink the physical space in which learning takes place. The traditional classroom was designed for the Industrial Era and has served us relatively well since then, but it assumes a certain relationship between teachers and students—as well as school operations generally—that may not apply in some modern learning environments.

In a fascinating interview with Michael Horn, architect Larry Kearns explains how he designed a building to meet the needs of a blended-learning school in Chicago:

In a traditional school, since learning is monopolized by large-group direct instruction, all you need are cellular classrooms, with rows of desks focused on a single instructor. Since this “habitat” for learning is so culturally ingrained, it often goes unquestioned. …

Since blended-learning schools leverage multiple modes of learning, their spatial needs differ. At a minimum, they need spaces designed for different types of personalized learning, which can occur individually through digital media or in small interactive groups. The small-group learning can be peer-to-peer or teacher-led. Ideally, spaces for all of these modes of learning can be located in the same physical space, interlocked to minimize disturbances between them.

This combination of learning spaces is inherently decentralized since it focuses on the students. The teacher’s desk, if there is one, is pushed to the margins. Consequently, blended-learning “habitats” look nothing like their predecessors. …

Scheduling activities in a blended-learning school is more challenging than a traditional school. You cannot rely on a traditional bell schedule dictating movement between classrooms that focus on a single discipline. In a blended-learning environment, students are continually rotating between activities in a single space as they engage with a myriad of topics. It is much less passive than a traditional classroom. Consequently, programming a blended-learning school is a four-dimensional exercise where time and space must be tightly integrated.

Image of blended-learning classroom from edSurge.

The Road Ahead

The ideas presented above are just some examples of how our education system might change in the coming years, particularly with the advent of ESAs. None of the above proposals are necessarily the best way of doing things. Some might prove ineffective. It’s likely that some reforms will work well in some circumstances but not in others—or for some students, but not others. The best way to sort the wheat from the chaff and to match individual students to what works best for them is through a decentralized process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution. Policymakers must resist the urge to impose regulations that would undermine this process. As AEI’s Michael McShane wrote recently:

School choice programs simply establish the conditions for a market to emerge. That market relies on both demand- and supply-side responses. If parents cannot access the schools that they want their children to attend, they won’t support the program. If new schools or new providers don’t enter the market, either due to regulation or because the funding mechanism doesn’t offer them what they want, there won’t be enough seats. The better advocates understand this complex dance of supply and demand, the better they can design programs that will meet the desperate needs of so many American families. [Emphasis added.]

Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Fatal Conceit that the “curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Indeed, the most well-intentioned of policies can produce results that are the opposite of what was intended. We need look no further than Wisconsin and Louisiana to see how policies intended to protect the poor from the uncertainties of the market ended up depriving the poor of its benefits.

If Hayek isn’t enough, perhaps the Book of Proverbs will do: “When pride comes, disgrace follows; but with humility comes wisdom.”

Blended Learning Grows in Yuma

July 3, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Don Soifer has a very interesting piece on how the Yuma Elementary District is going all in on personalized learning. Yuma of course is also the home of Carpe Diem, so the district is getting in on this trend. This bears watching. The reason you get to do something other than subsistence farming is because people figured out how to leverage technology in order to improve the productivity of farmers. It sure would be helpful if someone figured out how to do something similar in education-especially in Arizona.

Arizona is a relatively poor state with an unusually small working age population and a vise that looks to tighten in future years. Having lots of people too young to work or else on fixed incomes is not a recipe for lavishing money on schools, but it just might make pretty good primordial soup for innovation.  We have public school teacher shortages, which starts with the fact that only 19% of the public school Class of 2006 earned any kind of BA degree in six years.



No More Educational Kings!

July 2, 2015

No More Kings

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Heading toward the Independence Day weekend, OCPA’s Perspective has just come out with my article on school choice as an embodiment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence:

The schools this country was founded upon saw themselves as responsible to families, churches, and, in a broad way, the local community. They were not government-owned or government-run…Government control over the minds of the young would have been seen by the founding generation as intolerable tyranny…

I argue that the creation of the government school monopoly involved a rejection of the principles of the founders, including religious freedom. One of the motives of Horace Mann and his Unitarian friends in creating a government school monopoly was to stamp out the old religion of the Puritans and establish Unitarianism in Massachusetts. Whatever you think of the relative merits of Calvinism and Unitarianism, government control of education for the purpose of religious indoctrination is not what this country was founded on.

Fortunately, by the time they tried to play this trick on another religious minority, the cat was out of the bag:

Thank heaven our Roman Catholic friends were smart enough to see what was going on when the government monopoly was turned against them. Not many Americans in the mid-19th century shared the Boston Brahmins’ contempt for evangelicals, but a lot of them did want to purge Catholic immigrants of their filthy popery. Catholics weren’t having any of it; in the great tradition handed down from the American founding, they ignored the government monopoly and started their own schools. America’s newcomers were more faithful to the principles of their adopted home than America itself was.

I not only support free speech but enjoy it, and I welcome your comments, whatever your view!

Ended the Wonk Wars Have

July 1, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Congrats to hometown hero Seth Rau of Nevada Succeeds, winner of the 2015 Wonkathon! Mike Petrilli’s reflection on the 14 wonkathon entries is available here.  Thanks to the Fordham folks for pulling it together.

In other news, I have officially lost count of the number of private choice enactments this year. Florida lawmakers circled back to expand ESA eligibility and tripled the funding for FLESA. I understand that Ohio lawmakers improved the Buckeye State’s scholarship funding. South Carolina increased funding for their tax-credit program. The Wisconsin statewide expansion is still pending.  So let’s see if I can list them out:

MS special needs ESA

NV tax credit

TN special needs ESA

Ark special needs voucher

AZ ESA expansion for reservation kids

AZ tax credit expansion to S-corp donors

FL ESA expansion

OH voucher improvements

SC tax credit expansion

MT tax credit program


IN increased scholarship amounts

PA and WI are still in the works, plus I am pretty sure I am forgetting some.  Still too early for the inevitable 2015 vs. 2011 post- or is it?



Recognition for Al Copeland and School Names

June 28, 2015

Over the last week I’ve seen some nice recognition of two projects with which I’ve been involved: school name research and the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  Robert Pondiscio has a column in US News in which he reiterates our recommendation that school names are an important opportunity for communities to articulate and learn about their values:

There are nearly 200 K-12 schools in America named after Confederate leaders or places named after them. There have been calls to strip the names from those buildings too.

I don’t have the standing to tell people in schools I will never see or set foot in whose names their institution are fit to bear. But as a teacher of civics and history, I know a good teachable moment when I see one. So here’s a challenge for every school in this country named after a president, military figure, athlete, civic leader or any prominent person: Commit the coming school year to a close examination of the life and work of your school’s namesake. For starters, there’s no excuse for ignorance. And your students might learn something – good, bad or ugly – that will create a sense of pride or discomfort. At the very least, it will provide a first-rate lesson in history, civics and democratic processes to an education system where both are in short supply.

Amen, brother Robert.

And in the Wall Street Journal, Andy Kessler has a column that nicely captures the spirit of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  He argues that capitalists are often the ones who do the most to improve the human condition, not the philanthropies and foundations named after them.  He writes:

Everyone should stop focusing on an entrepreneur’s wealth and instead focus on the value the customers gained from his products. I can’t dig for oil, let alone frack, but I am happy to pay Exxon a premium for my high-test gas. Collectively, we are richer because of Exxon. So inequality is not a bug of capitalism; it’s a feature.

The Ford Foundation plans to focus on six areas of inequality: civic engagement and government; creativity and free expression; gender, ethnic and racial justice; inclusive economics; Internet freedom; and youth opportunity and learning. Hard to argue against all that namby pamby. But none are productive, none drive profits, and none will achieve the huge leaps in public welfare that Henry Ford pulled off so long ago.

At the end of the day, there are only four things you can do with your money: You can spend it, pay it to the IRS, give it away or reinvest it. Consumption is on the receiving end of productivity—furthering personal instead of public welfare. Government spending is by definition not productive, as you realize every time you step into a DMV. Same goes for charitable giving—no profit means no measure of value or productivity.

And so the most productive thing someone can do with his money—the only thing that will increase living standards—is invest. If the Ford or Clinton foundations really wanted to help society, they’d work on lowering barriers to business formation and cutting the regulatory chains that inhibit productive hiring in the U.S. and globally. But what fun is that? Better to boast about reducing inequality, public welfare be damned.

The Al Copeland Humanitarian Award selection committee could not have said it better.

NVESA Wonkathon Keeps Swinging

June 18, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

NV ESA wonkathon continues to belt out tunes and has spilled into other venues! Rick Hess weighed in with this off-site commentary:

The thinking provoked by the Nevada ESA has been especially promising. For instance, this week the Fordham Institute has had a number of folks contributing to a blog series on the program. I’d been prepared for a lot of bureaucratic talk about how we have to ensure there are “only” quality offerings (as if we a] know how to do that and b] we can all easily agree on what “quality” entails). Instead, most of the contributors asked what it will take to promote an influx of great providers, healthy transparency, useful information on quality, and a vibrant ecosystem. This focus on what it takes for choice systems to work has too often been buried under vacuous cheerleading or bureaucratic proposals for test-based quality control when it comes to vouchers and charters, and I find it a really promising sign. 

Meanwhile back at wonkathon central, we have two new entries from Neerav Kingsland and Lindsey Burke.

Goldstein-Gone-Wild already nominated NK for harbormaster in the first post, which may have raised expectations for the actual NK post to Sports-Illustrated Cover Curse type of level. I’m broadly sympathetic to the notion that NVESA is leaving too much money on the table for the incumbent system, and too little for disadvantaged kids-especially for special needs kids. I don’t however see the current stock of private school seats and their prices as terribly relevant to where this is ultimately going to go, as those seats are few and far between anyway. NVESA is going to create a demand for schooling models that can get the job done at what passes as low spending per pupil these days. The challenge is to see how we can meet that demand.

NK also seems to view NVESA as a voucher program rather than a multi-use account model. GGW’s call for micro-schools, education cooperatives and who-knows-what-else-parents-may-come-up-with all stand within the realm of the possible.

Meanwhile Lindsey Burke calls the Wolf!

No not that Wolf!

Not that one either!


Now cut it out! This Wolf:

Burke quite rightly cites the fantastic survey of private school leaders in Louisiana that Wolf and company did for AEI. This very careful and important study can be summarized as:

I fear btw that Kingsland’s call to disallow topping-off for private schools would result in just such a backfire by serving as a defacto price cap. Better in my view to increase the funding for low-income and otherwise disadvantaged kids.

Also some interesting discussion yesterday on Twitter about NCLB supplemental services as a cautionary tale for ESA. More on that later and more wonkathon posts are on the way-stay tuned!

Gifts to Charters are Like Buckets of Water into the Ocean

June 17, 2015

(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)

Charter schools remain controversial in the world of education.  Charters are public schools granted independence from some of the regulations that constrain traditional, district-run, public schools.  In exchange, charters promise to meet specific performance goals or close.  About 2.5 million students were enrolled in public charter schools in 2014-15, representing over 5 percent of the school-age population.

Charter schools not only are operated differently from district-run public schools, they also are funded differently.  They tend to receive little or no local property tax dollars, and often have to finance their buildings through operating funds, while district-run schools have access to capital funds to fund their facilities.

Today my crack school finance research team released Buckets of Water into the Ocean: Non-Public Revenue in Public Charter and Traditional Public Schools. Across the 15 states with both a sizable charter school population and detailed 2011-12 data about school funding from both public and non-public sources, we were able to determine that traditional public schools (TPS) received $13,628 per pupil in public revenue while charters received only $10,922, a funding gap of $2,706 per student or 20 percent.

Some commentators claim that the gap in public funding of charters and TPS is not a concern because public charter schools receive large donations from philanthropies to make up the gap.  (I’m talking about you Gary Miron and Bruce Baker.)  We set off to determine if that was true by conducting the first detailed study of the non-public revenues received by district-run public schools and charters across multiple states.

In fact, of the $504 million in charitable funds received by the schools in our study, $331 million or two-thirds was given to district-run schools while only $171 million or one-third was given to charter schools.  On a per-pupil basis, district-run schools received $18 from philanthropy while charters received $264, because district schools serve far more students than charters.

Importantly, the average amount of charitable funding per-pupil in the charter school sector masks the reality that a small number of charters receive the bulk of philanthropy.  Over 95% of all charter school philanthropy was directed at schools that enrolled just one-third of the charter students in our 15-state sample.  Over one-third of the charter schools received no philanthropic dollars at all.

Philanthropy isn’t the only source of non-public funds to schools, however.  Schools also receive non-public revenue from food service and investment income, among other things.  The district-run public schools in our study received $112 per pupil in food service revenue while the public charter schools received just $30.  The district-run schools also earned more investment income than the charters, $46 per pupil compared to $32.

When we add it all up, district-run public schools received $6.4 billion in non-public revenue in 2011-12 compared to $379 million for public charter schools.  On a per-pupil basis, district-run schools netted $353 in non-public funds compared to $579 for charters.  All sources of non-public funds together only shrunk the yawning per-pupil district-charter funding gap by $226, from $2,932 to $2,706 less in revenues for each charter school student.

Philanthropy simply can’t be expected to eliminate the gap in the public funding of district-run and charter schools.  The gap is too large and philanthropy too small for that to happen, a point already made with great eloquence by the namesake of this blog.  Almost 98 percent of all funding for district-run and charter schools comes from public sources.  Only 0.2 percent specifically comes from philanthropy.  If students in public charter schools are to receive funding on a par with students in traditional, district-run, public schools, it will have to come from more equitable public school funding laws.  Saying that charitable donations can make up the funding gap between district-run and charter schools is like saying that throwing buckets of water into the ocean will change the tide.


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