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.

The Character Assessment Initiative (Charassein)

June 16, 2015


Under the direction of my colleague, Gema Zamarro, the Department of Education Reform is launching the Character Assessment Initiative, or Charassein.  Charassein (χαράσσειν) means to engrave, scratch, or etch and is the Greek root for the word character.  The idea of the initiative is to define, develop, and validate measures of what have often been called non-cognitive skills, but we think are more accurately described as character traits.  Once we have improved our understanding and ability to measure these traits, we will also be interested in evaluating potential interventions for shaping or altering them.  You should check out the Charassein web site to learn more about what we have and will be doing.

In some previous posts I’ve mentioned the incredibly innovative paper by Collin Hitt, Julie Trivitt, and Albert Cheng that looks at student non-response on surveys (leaving answers blank or saying “don’t know”) as a proxy for conscientiousness or effort.  They find that non-response is predictive in six different national longitudinal data sets of later life outcomes for students, including attainment, employment, and earnings, even after controlling for other relevant factors including cognitive ability.  That paper is part of our Character Assessment Initiative and I am pleased to report that it is moving closer to publication.  It received a positive R&R from a leading journal and, after the necessary revisions, is back under review.  You can find the updated paper here.

If you like that paper, you’ll love a new paper by Albert Cheng in which he looks at how teachers may affect student conscientiousness and later life outcomes.  Albert examines how teacher non-response on surveys influences student non-response.  Albert uses the Longitudinal Study of American Youth and confirms that student non-response on surveys is predictive of later life outcomes.  In fact, he shows that student non-response on surveys in grades 7-9 is more strongly predictive of graduating high school and completing a bachelors degree than math and science standardized test results. Albert then goes on to show that non-response on surveys administered to teachers is predictive of the non-response of their students.  Using a student fixed-effects model, he shows that student non-response tends to go up when they have a teacher who is more non-responsive on his/her surveys and tends to go down when students have teachers who are more responsive on surveys.  If we understand non-response as a proxy for conscientiousness or effort, then Albert has found that students become more conscientious when they have teachers who are more conscientious and less conscientious when they have teachers who are less conscientious.

This is an amazing breakthrough in character (or non-cog) research.  Albert demonstrates that teacher character influences student character and that student character is predictive of later life outcomes.  Check out his new paper and the updated version of the Hitt, Trivitt, and Cheng paper.  And for folks who think this is as cool as I do, keep in mind that both Collin and Albert will be hitting the job market in a year or two.

Dare to Watch Daredevil

June 14, 2015

I recently recommended the Netflix series, Daredevil, to a friend.  He replied: “Aren’t you tired of comic book-based movies?  They just tell the same story over and over.”  I suggested that the familiarity of comic book characters was precisely what allowed them to be so good.

Comic book stories are just the modern version of Greeks myths or medieval saint stories.  The audience is familiar with the characters and basic plot, but the art is in the particular telling of those familiar stories.  And because the characters and basic plot are mostly known by the audience, much less energy needs to be devoted to explication.  Only the ways in which the characters and plot deviate from the familiar pattern require greater development.

Originality in story-telling is often over-rated.  Shakespeare mostly relied on familiar characters and well-worn plots.  His contribution was in how he used what was already well-known.  Conversely, I love original Chris Noland films, like Inception and Memento, but it’s amazing how much time in those movies is consumed with explaining how dreaming or memory work.  There is an efficiency in using the familiar.

This all being said, good comic book stories still require some development of plot and character, especially to highlight the ways in which the current telling deviates from previous ones.  I thought the Avengers movies fell short in devoting far too little to character and plot development and way too much to mind-numbing action.

But the new Netflix series, Daredevil, is a wonderful example of how comic book stories can be excellent if they are told well.  I remember the boring Ben Affleck movie-version of Daredevil, so it is striking how different the same story can be if it is just done better.  The new Netflix series version benefits from a serialized format to develop its version of the plot and characters more slowly.  It also uses Foggy for great comic relief.

And best of all, it crafts a sympathetic Wilson Fisk — so sympathetic that at times I wasn’t entirely sure whether he or Matt Murdock were actually the villain.  Fisk clearly uses evil methods but appears genuine in his regret about those methods and sincere in his goal for a better city.  Murdock/Daredevil, on the other hand, admits that he derives pleasure from his violence and only differs from Fisk in his methods in his unwillingness to kill his enemies.  Deriving pleasure from torturing one’s opponents hardly seems better than killing them with remorse.

Like all good comic book-based stories, Greek myths, and saint stories, Daredevil’s characters are archetypes worth exploring.  They capture some essential element of humanity, with its mix of tragic flaws and potential for greatness.  Check out Daredevil and let me know if you don’t think it was better than the Avengers and worthy of attention, like stories about Hercules or St. Francis.

Randomistas Seek to Dispel Guesswork in Anti-Poverty Efforts

June 8, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Interesting article in the WSJ today on the use of random assignment studies in anti-poverty efforts. Known as “Randomistas” these economists show a lot of promising results. At one point in the article Columbia’s Jeffery Sachs attempts to pour cold water on the process:

Prof. Sachs says that “many, almost surely most, of the cutting-edge breakthroughs in actual development in recent years did not result from [randomized controlled trials].” He believes that tackling problems at the level of communities or entire societies, rather than just households, is likely to be more effective—though, he adds, randomized controlled trials should be “a part of a diverse arsenal of analytical and policy tools.”

Retorts Prof. Duflo of MIT: “The big difference between Jeffrey Sachs and us is that he knows what needs to be done, and we don’t. We’re trying to learn it.”

Pass the Popcorn: Families Versus Monsters

June 4, 2015


“Thanks for asking nicely?” Brother, you hadn’t seen anything yet.

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I don’t like to interrupt our celebration of the incomparably important victory for universal school choice in Nevada, but I have something that takes higher priority. I saw the new Avengers movie again and I have some new thoughts to add. Unlike my previous post, this one contains much more serious spoilers.

I liked this movie a lot better the second time. Before I was expecting that its deep theme would be tied to Ultron’s mission and motivation, so I was frustrated we got virtually nothing to chew on there. Loki articulated a clear and philosophically important argument against the dignity and freedom of the human person, so I was waiting for something analogous from Ultron. I see now that I was looking in the wrong place. The real action is in the tug-of-war for Bruce Banner.

In my essay on the first Avengers movie, I wrote that Banner, not Stark, is the real man of science, knowledge and Enlightenment. Those forces produce great power but cannot direct that power toward an end. While moral culture is important in its own right, ultimately it is religion that directs power toward ends. The great question of the past three hundred years or so has been the struggle of competing religions – Christianity, Romantic individualism, Marxism, fascism, etc. – to control the power unleashed by the Enlightenment. Our own culture represents a messy but reasonable working compromise between Christianity (represented by Steve Rogers) and Romantic individualism (represented by Tony Stark). The question raised by the first Avengers movie is whether that compromise can hold together.

The second Avengers movie is not the masterpiece the first one was, but I now see that it carries forward the same theme, but on totally different ground. The conflict between Rogers and Stark remains, and remains religious, as I observed before. But I was mistaken to view this as the center. A new conflict moves to center stage – a philosophical conflict rather than a religious one as such. The question is no longer science and God, but science and nature. (Although God continues to hover in the background and silently haunt this story with his presence, as he always does.)

In the first movie, the words “war” and “freedom” were featured prominently from the very first scene onward. The key themes in this movie are “monsters” and family. The movie dares not use the politically freighted word “family,” but you can hardly miss theme.

In one corner we have Tony Stark, the Romantic individualist. With clear echoes of the Frankenstein myth, he seduces Banner away from loyalty to the group, seduces him into creating a “monster.” He even says to Banner “we’re monsters” and urges him to embrace that identity. Now, in this context, a “monster” is what you get when you use science to reshape nature arbitrarily – use science not to understand nature and use it in accordance with some natural or supernatural scheme of values that tells you its proper purpose, but to manipulate nature as if it had no intrinsic or transcendent purpose. The implicit philosophy here is that science is above nature absolutely and arbitrarily – science is to nature as the potter is to the clay. Or, as another Romantic individualist once put it, “you shall be as gods.”

In the other corner we have, not Steve Rogers this time, but Natasha Romanov. She tries to seduce him as well, to seduce him away from loyalty to the group, but in this case toward the creation of a marriage. The context here is the Barton family and the clear signal it gives us – almost ham-handedly so – that (on the natural level at least) what makes life most meaningful is marriage and children. It has always been central to the Bruce Banner character that he is an outcast, bearing the burden of isolation and alienation due to his affliction. Romanov, who alone can tame the Hulk, offers him redemption. But when he finally accepts, the needs of the greater good drive them apart. Not even the family is ultimate; like Frodo, Romanov and Banner must give up their home so that others may have theirs.

And the family, of course, is the great foundation of human nature. The feminists are right to hate this movie, and not only because Marvel shamefully neglects and disrespects its female characters. (If anyone at DC had a brain, they’d be turning out Wonder Woman and Zatanna movies by the truckload to pick up these underserved customers. Alas.) I believe Whedon was probably catering to the gay lobby by making the point that marriage is meaningful even apart from childbearing. Of course, Christians have always said the same, but the rhetorical incompetence of the “new natural law” people has effectively concealed this. What Whedon apparently did not anticipate (unless he did it on purpose to court publicity) was the feminists’ offense – very justified if one takes their perspective – at the fact that Romanov’s and Banner’s lives are gravely wounded by their inability to have children.

Human nature is not, as the feminists (and the gay lobby!) would have it, infinitely malleable. It has a purpose, and when that purpose is thwarted, we suffer.

And why can’t Romanov and Banner have children? In both cases, the hubris of science that reaches past its bounds, creating “monsters.” Science is to nature not as the potter is to the clay, but as mother and father are to the child.

Who Says Culturally Enriching Field Trips Are in Decline?

June 2, 2015


Colleagues, students, and I have been studying the effects of culturally enriching field trips on students.  We’ve published research on field trips to see live theater (so far here) and to visit an art museum ( so far here, here, and here) and generally lamented that these kinds of enriching trips are in decline (see here and here).  They are either being replaced with “reward” field trips to places like amusement parks and bowling alleys or disappearing altogether.  Enriching trips not only have the potential of conveying important content knowledge, but also help convey our values and priorities to future generations.

Yesterday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune  carried a piece about a small private school, the Gaia Democratic School, which took its students on a field trip to the Smitten Kitten, a local store featuring sex toys and erotica, as part of their sex education class.

This seems like a culturally enriching field trip to me.  It has potentially useful content knowledge and it is conveying to those children the values and priorities of the parents and educators at that school.  The article does quote one parent who withdrew his children from the school after his two daughters, ages 11 and 13, went on the field trip.  But my guess is that most parents at the Gaia Democratic School know and support exactly what their school stands for.  The Star-Tribune says, “Gaia is a K-12 school with a motto promising academic freedom, youth empowerment and democratic education. Parents say the school has about 25 students, including several described by administrators as transgender.”

That’s the beauty of school choice.  If this school doesn’t teach their values, parents can go somewhere else.  But for those families who want something like Gaia Democratic School, why should they be forced to attend a school that drags their kids to Chuck E. Cheese on field trips?

I wonder if Gaia has thought about having an RCT evaluation of their filed trips, although that would be hard with only 25 23 students.

Does School Spending Matter After All?

May 29, 2015

This is the question raised by a new study by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker C. Johnson and Claudia Persico  in Education Next.  Jackson, et al claim to have up-ended decades of school finance research by finding a link between school spending and improved student outcomes.  After reading that article and an earlier, more detailed version posted on the NBER web site, I find nothing to persuade me to abandon the long-standing and well-established finding that simply providing schools with more resources does not improve student outcomes.

Let’s remember how well-established this finding is by noting that Eric Hanushek conducted a comprehensive review of the literature and concluded:

…the research indicates little consistent relationship between resources to schools and student achievement. Much of the research considers how resources affect student achievement as measured by standardized test scores. These scores are strongly related to individual incomes and to national economic performance, making them a good proxy for longer run economic impacts. But, the evidence – whether from aggregate school outcomes, econometric investigations, or a variety of experimental or quasiexperimental approaches – suggests that pure resource policies that do not change incentives are unlikely to be effective. (p. 866)

Jackson, et al acknowledge that past research has failed to find a link between school resources and student outcomes:

Coleman found that variation in school resources (as measured by per-pupil spending and student-to-teacher ratios) was unrelated to variation in student achievement on standardized tests. In the decades following the release of the Coleman Report, the effect of school spending on student academic performance was studied extensively, and Coleman’s conclusion was widely upheld.

But they believe that past research was flawed in two important respects.  First, test scores may be a weak indicator of later-life success, so it would be better to look at stronger measures, like educational attainment, employment, and earnings.  Second, they believe that past studies of school spending may suffer from an endogeneity problem.  That is, extra money has tended to go to schools facing challenges.  The failure to find a link between more resources and better achievement may be because schools with a weaker future trajectory are the ones more likely to get more money.  So, the causal arrow may be going in the wrong direction.  Weak performance may be causing more resources rather than more resources causing weak performance.

Jackson, et al solve the first issue by focusing on longer-term student outcomes, like educational attainment and earnings.  They claim to have a solution to the second problem by finding a type of spending increase that is unrelated to the expected trajectory of school performance.  Court-ordered spending, they say, is exogenous, while regular legislative increases in spending are endogenous.

The surprising findings of the Jackson, et al article hinge entirely on this claim that court-ordered spending is exogenous.  Looking at attainment and earnings by itself does not produce a different result than past research that has focused on test scores.  The thing that allows Jackson, et al to find that spending is linked to better student outcomes is the fact that they do not examine actual spending increases.  Instead, they predict changes in spending based on court-orders and use that predicted spending in place of the actual spending.

This instrumental variable technique developed by James Heckman, however, only works if the instrument is in fact exogenous.  That is, court-ordered spending has to be unrelated to the future trajectory of school performance.  Given how critical this point is to the entire article, you might think Jackson, et al would spend a fair amount of energy to justifying the exogeneity of court-ordered spending.  They do not.

It is completely mysterious to me why we should believe that court-ordered spending differs from legislatively-originated spending in the likelihood that it is linked to the expected future trajectory of school performance.  That is, schools facing challenges are just as likely to get extra money if the spending originates in the courts or in the legislature.  If we are concerned that the causal arrow is going in the wrong direction in that weak performance causes more money rather than the other way around, we should have that concern just as much whether the motivation for the money came from the court or the legislature.

Jackson, et al do not make a proper case for the exogeneity of court-ordered spending other than to describe it as a “shock” to school spending.  But there is nothing more shocking about spending that originates in the courts than in the legislature.  Court cases take years to develop, be decided, and complete appeals.  And then they have to be implemented by legislative action.  The timing of court-ordered spending is no more surprising to schools than regular legislative spending.  Nor is the amount of spending change necessarily more dramatic than those originating in legislatures.  The passage of ESEA and its re-authorizations infused large amounts of money into schools.

Jackson et al need to convince us that court-ordered spending is exogenous to get their unusual result.  If they just used conventional methods, they would confirm the wide-spread finding that extra money does not improve outcomes.  As they describe it:

We confirm that our approach generates significantly different results than those that use observed increases in school spending, by comparing our results to those we would have obtained had we used actual rather than predicted increases as our measure of changes in district spending. For all outcomes, the results based simply on observed increases in school spending are orders of magnitude smaller than our estimates based on predicted SFR-induced spending increases, and most are statistically insignificant.

But Jackson, et al fail to justify the claim that court-ordered spending is exogneous on which their entire article depends nor does such a claim seem plausible.

But even if you were to somehow believe that court-ordered spending is exogenous, it would still be unwise to jump to the conclusion that we now know money matters and should open the resource spigots to K-12 education.  First, the past research Hanushek reviewed includes studies that do not suffer from either of the concerns raised by Jackson, et al.  That is, some of those studies examine later-life outcomes for students and not just test scores and some of those studies rely on experimental methods with which there is no problem with causation.  Why should we disregard those studies for this one new study even if we were to ignore the concerns I’ve raised above?

Second, Jackson, et al are examining the effect of court-ordered spending in the 1970s when spending levels in real terms were much lower and variation in spending across districts within states was much higher.  It’s quite a leap to think that more money now would have the same effect as then.  To my surprise, Bruce Baker made this same point in response to the Jackson, et al article in comments to Education Week:

“[E]xploring such [far-apart] outcomes, while a fun academic exercise, is of limited use for informing policy,” he wrote in an email to Education Week. “Among other things, these are changes that occurred under very different conditions than today.”

Mr. Baker also disagreed with the researchers’ caveat that similar changes might have a much smaller effect if introduced today, in part because total school funding nationwide increased by 175 percent over 43 years, from an average of $4,612 per student in 1967 to about $12,772 per student in 2010, as measured in 2012 dollars.

So does school spending matter after all?  I think the answer is still clearly “no.”


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