Jason Bedrick, Editorial Slayer

December 4, 2014

Over at Education Next, Jason Bedrick has one of the most devastating take-downs of an editorial I’ve ever seen.  The Sun-Sentinel recently published an editorial opposing the state’s scholarship tax credit program.  Almost everything in the editorial was a factual error or grossly distorted.

Given that journalists and newspapers are supposed to trade in facts and accurate information, it is a wonder that the editorial writers at the Sun-Sentinel could be so incredibly awful at their jobs.

Weissmann: Look for Law Schools to Start Closing

December 3, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It’s not just at the pump where people are saving: law school applications have declined 24% and prices are dropping.

Arts Research Needs Funding

December 3, 2014

Brian Kisida, Cari Bogulski, Anne Kraybill, Collin Hitt, Dan Bowen, and I have a new piece in Education Week about our studies measuring the effects of culturally enriching art experiences on students.  The piece summarizes our research on what students learn from going on field trips to an art museum as well as to see live theater.  It also goes into greater detail on how those experiences affect critical thinking and the desire to become cultural consumers (people who go to art museums and the theater when they grow up).  This article is part of a special section Education Week has published on arts education.

But the main thrust of our new Ed Week article is the argument that arts education badly needs funding for quality research on how the arts affect students.  We write:

None of this research will occur, however, until defenders of the arts recognize the need for it. Arts advocates can no longer rely on weak studies that simply compare students who participate in the arts with those who don’t. Such studies are pervasive, and the claims they make are likely overblown. Skeptics can correctly wonder whether the research truly demonstrates that the arts make people awesome, or if awesome people are simply attracted to the arts. To convince skeptics of how the arts can influence a student’s trajectory, future studies will have to adopt rigorous research designs that can isolate causal effects.

Art collectors are bidding up prices, and enormous fortunes are devoted to acquiring and displaying art. It makes little sense for arts patrons to spend a fortune acquiring and commissioning masterpieces, while failing to demonstrate the benefits of the arts with quality research. To determine whether there are important social benefits derived from arts activities, money should be invested in funding rigorous research, which can be expensive.

If the arts and culture are to remain a vibrant part of children’s education, arts patrons will need to step forward to help pay for the kind of quality research that shows not only what those benefits are, but just how significant they can be.

The Lego Movie’s Think Tank Captures PLDD Perfectly

November 24, 2014

I finally got a chance to watch The Lego Movie and it was great fun.  I particularly enjoyed the movie’s description of a “think tank.”

The villain, President Business, has imprisoned almost all of the Lego Universe’s master builders, including Superman, Green Lantern, William Shakespeare, and Shaquille O’Neal, in his think tank.  In the think tank the captured creative heroes are forced to “come up with all the instructions for everything in the universe.”  That is, they are supposed to develop a plan for how everything is supposed to done from which no one may deviate.  And the perfect order of the plan will be made permanent once Preisdent Business can use the Kragle (Krazy Glue) to freeze everything in place.

I’m glad the folks at Lego are aware of how the scourge that is known as PLDD has infected many of the nation’s leading think tanks.  And if this is the impression that popular culture has of think tanks, no amount of web hits, Tweets, or donor dollars will restore their policy influence.  Think tanks had better find the Piece of Resistance before it’s too late.

SNL brings back School House Rock

November 23, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Congratulations Bill…now you are irrelevant!



King of the Road

November 21, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’m on the plane back to Arizona having spent the entire week in Austin and then at the Excel in Ed National Summit.  I had the opportunity to provide invited testimony to the Texas Senate Education committee, chaired for the last time by Senator/Lt. Governor-elect Dan Patrick.

The focus on the hearing was on the crushing enrollment growth in Texas. Texas adds a Wyoming public school system sized number of students per year. The percentage of total spending going to capital outlay and debt service has doubled since the turn of the century up to 20%, and there is no end in sight.

For instance, the Austin Independent School District passed an almost $500m bond issue in 2013. The district has approximately 76,000 students, 20,000 of whom spend at least part of the day in a portable building. The district estimated that passage of the bond would reduce portable building use by 16%- at least for a while.

I may or may not have used the technical term “boogeyman story” to describe the fearful narrative that removing charter school caps, creating voucher, tax-credit or ESA programs would leave the Texas public school system in ruins. The truth of the matter is that they don’t have spaces or teachers for the kids they already have, and far more arrive every year than would ever wind up going into any combination of private choice programs.

You can’t stop Texas enrollment growth, you can only hope to contain it.

You can’t stop Texas enrollment growth, you can only hope to contain it.

Next on the agenda was a stop over in DC to present at the Excel in Ed National Summit on ESA programs. The conference had 900+ attendees and some outstanding presentations, all of which will be available on the interwebs soon. It is always energizing to get to spend time with my colleagues and with K-12 reformers from across the country and the world. I always come away from these meetings exhausted and energized (yes it is odd) but the energy is still there after some sleep dispels the exhaustion.

Finally, I was honored this week to join Arizona Governor-elect Doug Ducey’s transition team along with reform champion Lisa Graham Keegan and Great Hearts Vice President Erik Twist. We will be looking for outstanding candidates to fill critical K-12 policy roles.


How is a Portfolio District Different from a School District?

November 14, 2014

[The music festival, day 6. The crowd has grown so big the camera has to pull back a loooong way to get it all into view. The boys are again present with the college hippies. The band is playing reggae music.]
Driver: Wow, this band is so crunchy. Dude, I need more weed.
Stan: So it seems like we have enough people now. When do we start taking down the corporations?
Man 1: [take a deep drag from his joint] Yeah man, the corporations. Right now they’re raping the world for money!
Kyle: Yeah, so, where are they. Let’s go get ‘em.
Man 2: Right now we’re proving we don’t need corporations. We don’t need money. This can become a commune where everyone just helps each other.
Man 1: Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like, who like, makes bread. A-and one guy who like, l-looks out for other people’s safety.
Stan: You mean like a baker and a cop?
Man 2: No no, can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?
Kyle: Yeah, it’s called a town.
Driver: You kids just haven’t been to college yet. But just you wait, this thing is about to get HUGE.

The Ed Next article by Robin J. Lake, Ashley Jochim and Michael DeArmond on the challenges facing school choice in Detroit has led to a resurgence of chatter about Portfolio Districts.  The authors write:

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

And in an accompanying blog post Lake concludes: “What Detroit needs is a portfolio manager…”

The idea that we need a Portfolio District to decide which schools of choice are allowed to open, which must shut-down, and what regulations should govern all of them has gained some traction in reform circles ever since New Orleans adopted this approach.  Now folks want to bring that same idea to Detroit and choice systems everywhere to make sure bad actors don’t get to operate schools, that failing schools are forced to close, and that a heavy regulatory framework avoids other problems.

I’ve never understood how Portfolio Districts are expected to perform these regulatory functions any better than regular old school districts.  The whole thing reminds me of the exchange quoted above from the South Park Hippie Drum Circle episode.

Portfolio District Advocate: “Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like is a Portfolio Manager, who like can close down bad schools.”

Me: “You mean like a superintendent?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “No, man, this guy will work for an independent board that makes rules for schools to make sure they don’t do bad things.”

Me: “You mean like a school district?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “You don’t get it, dude, the Portfolio District is there to make sure that only good schools open and to provide information and reduce chaos.”

Me: “Isn’t that what school districts are already supposed to do? How is a Portfolio District any different other than that you gave it a new name and believe that good people will be in charge?”

Ed reform is plagued by people not thinking like social scientists.  School districts have institutional incentives to prevent new good schools from opening, propping up bad schools that too few parents want, and imposing an excessive regulatory framework on the entire system.  Those same institutional incentives will inevitably come to dominate Portfolio Districts.

If you want to create real change, you have to change the system of incentives — not just create new institutions that will be governed by the same perverse incentives.  Choice and market competition can accomplish the same goals without being subject to the same destructive incentives as school and portfolio districts.

Yes, I know that Robin Lake and her co-authors find continued low achievement in Detroit schools and quote several people who complain about a lack of information and other challenges.  But keep in mind that the big expansion in choice in Detroit is only a few years old and that the city is starting from an extremely high level of dysfunction.  Lake and her colleagues have not used a rigorous analysis to determine whether charter schools are having a positive effect in Detroit, they just show trends in urban NAEP scores.  And the few studies on Detroit charters they do cite — the CREDO and  Mackinac studies — both find positive results for Detroit charters.  It just isn’t fast enough and dramatic enough.

Beware ed reformers in a hurry.  Real and enduring improvement takes time.  Happily it is possible, if we have the patience to let it happen.  A new study by Patrick L. Baude, Marcus Casey, Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin examines the evolution of charter school quality in Texas over time.  Here is their abstract:

Studies of the charter school sector typically focus on head-to-head comparisons of charter and traditional schools at a point in time, but the expansion of parental choice and relaxation of constraints on school operations is unlikely to raise school quality overnight. Rather, the success of the reform depends in large part on whether parental choices induce improvements in the charter sector. We study quality changes among Texas charter schools between 2001 and 2011. Our results suggest that the charter sector was initially characterized by schools whose quality was highly variable and, on average, less effective than traditional public schools. However, exits from the sector, improvement of existing charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organizations that open additional schools raised average charter school effectiveness over time relative to traditional public schools. Moreover, the evidence is consistent with the belief that a reduction in student turnover as the sector matures, expansion of the share of charters that adhere to a No Excuses philosophy, and increasingly positive student selection at the times of both entry and reenrollment all contribute to the improvement of the charter sector.

Rather than imposing a Portfolio District that is likely to re-create the dysfunction and failure of traditional school districts, let’s change the system of incentives and allow choice and competition to improve school quality over time.


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