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

July 24, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

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

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

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

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


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

July 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

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

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


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

July 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

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

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


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.


Sun Tzu and the Art of Education Reform

May 12, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay recently wrote two excellent posts about policy overreach and the pace of reform. Little Ramona even took time off from whipping her AFT intern pool with a cat o’nine tails to get them to write fake Diane Ravitch tweets faster to write an admiring post regarding Jay’s advice:

Greene ends his second post with a sage observation that ought to be pinned to the wall in every government office, every executive suite of every foundation, and every advocacy group:

Whether your preferred policy solution is based on standards and accountability, parental choice, instructional reform, or something else, the better approach to reform is gradual and decentralized so that everyone can learn and adapt. Your reform strategy has to be consistent with the diverse, decentralized, and democratic country in which we live. You won’t fix everything for everyone right away, but you should avoid Great Leaps Forward. Seek partial victories because with the paradoxical logic of ed reform politics total victory ultimately leads to total defeat.’

Jay’s post got me to thinking about my favorite warrior-sage, Sun-Tzu. What might he think about this?

On the one hand, Sun Tzu explicitly warns against long wars:

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare…In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

In other words win and win fast.  Sun Tzu advises against one of those hours long Rocky vs. Apollo type slug-fests where even the victor goes to the hospital.  He advises something more along the lines of:

Alas the education reform movement finds itself caught in an Ali rope a dope fight rather than an Iron Mike early conquest.  Neither George Washington, Winston Churchill, George Kennan, Ho Chi Mihn nor Martin Luther King Jr. had the opportunity for a quick and easy knockout either so you are in good company.  Jay’s point about seeking total victory leading to total defeat finds echoes in Sun Tzu as well:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

As an example of the above, I think it is safe to say that Sun Tzu would have little admiration for the quality of the effort put forward by American abolitionists.  From John Brown to Sherman’s March to Reconstruction these well-meaning people with a just cause seemed overly fond of the full frontal assault.  None of this excuses the actions of southerners at all. Note  however that it would have been rather extraordinary if the justices on the United States Supreme Court had failed to notice that the federal efforts in the south had almost completely backfired by the time of the contemptible Plessy case. Abolish slavery, hello sharecropping!  Amend the Constitution, say hello to Jim Crow. Deeply resentful southern racists eventually took  over the United States House and people in the north grew weary of their occupation of the south much faster, which is what one should expect given that everything they were doing more or less backfired.

Plessy was deeply horrible on many levels, but it essentially ratified the facts on the ground-facts that with sickening irony that abolitionists had helped to create.  Abolitionists did not achieve supreme excellence- they not only did not break the enemy’s resistance without fighting, they failed to break it with hundreds of thousands dead.  Their lack of supreme excellence, along with a great deal of idiocy on the part of southerners, helped usher in an additional century of Southern dark age.  We of course will never know how much of this tragedy could have been avoided, but we do know what actually happened and it was awful.  Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany to protect Poland’s freedom only to see Poland put under the Soviet boot, but at least this only lasted half a century.  In the aftermath of America’s bloodiest war America’s slaves were transformed into sharecroppers without the right to vote and with little decent schooling.  We are still grappling with this sordid legacy today.

As Jay said, seeking total immediate victory often leads to abject failure.

All this is all the more tragic given that American abolitionists could have learned a great deal from the earlier triumph of Wilbur Wilberforce in England in abolishing the slave trade and eventually slavery itself.  Notice the crucial elements of success: undaunted effort, indirect means, an eventual embrace of patient incremental policies after the failure of multiple frontal assaults, no bloody war ultimately accomplishing little to nothing.

It’s no mystery why a reactionary like Diane Ravitch would find solace in Jay’s Rx- she is quite happy with the status-quo, and has a lot of K-12 workers hanging on her every word as she tells them what they desperately want to believe. This does not however mean that reformers should ignore Jay’s advice-he’s on to something important regardless of whether Ravitch or other reactionaries hope to make use of it. In fact, reactionaries themselves should fear reformers taking this advice to heart. If they do, defenders of today’s failed status quo will face far more effective opponents.  Jay is yelling reformers a warning from their blind spot.

Last year I spent a lot of time in Texas working on education reform. During the session I got an email from someone whose opinion I highly respect and who told me some things I really, really, really did not want to believe.  The email said in part:

Matt, Some of the efforts to improve ‘choice’ were heavy handed and arrogant. Vouchers always have had common enemies from both the left  and right, from rural and suburban, from minorities who would be the  beneficiaries.

Expectations were too high and ignored several factors—the  finance lawsuit being a major factor, delaying any real reform efforts  until it’s settled.

Some leading ‘reformers’ collected a variety of practices  purported to be effective in other states and proposed those for  Texas without doing the necessary base building for real support.  Even the A through F idea was  never  really sold well.  The battle fought last session over the over-engineered  accountability system was won by proponents but  they ultimately lost the war, exacerbating the growing  anti-testing sentiment.

The business community was split on ‘accountability’ for good  reason. There has been an over emphasis on ‘college ready’ and not  enough focus on ‘job ready’ with the latter having been subsumed by the former.  The resulting curricular pathways will show that for some segment  of employers simply raising standards is no longer enough and some new  designs are needed.

A big part of me wanted to fire off an angry email explaining that illiterate Texas kids didn’t have another day to wait, etc. Instead I let it sit for a day.  The next day I had to confess to myself:

Damn it all to hell he’s right on every single point.

Sadder and wiser I wrote back:

You are totally correct that there are going to be plenty of servings of humble pie to eat at the end of this session. I also fear that we reformers have gotten into the habit of viewing reforms as military conquests over bad guys to the detriment of efforts to inform and persuade. Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where to you ultimately get without it?

Well it is mid 2014 now and the answer from the Texas example is pretty clear- nowhere.  Private choice failed, the commissioner did not implement A-F school grading after having the legislature forbid him to do so, the legislature has left the state’s accountability system as a complete train-wreck.  Sign me up for a double serving of humble pie.  Even the raising of the charter school cap represented only a symbolic victory as there were already ways around the cap and charter holders can open multiple campuses under preexisting Texas law.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that Texas school kids don’t have another damn day to wait for better schools. I must accept however the fact that failed attempts at reform don’t do them any good.  If there is going to be major changes in Texas K-12 education reformers are going to have to convince far more than 76 members of the Texas House, 16 members of the Texas Senate and one governor that they are good ideas. In fact, Texas reformers might be better off thinking of those 93 people as the last on the list to persuade rather than the first. Mere legislative majorities resemble words written into the sand of a beach without broader consensus and support.

If reformers want faster change, we must embrace the need to persuade a broader universe of people on the justice of our cause and the effectiveness of the means by which we hope to achieve them. If mere legislative majorities tempt you into thinking you can proceed without such consensus, think again.  Parental choice supporters should therefore embrace the burden of building a broad consensus while recognizing the danger overreach.  Persuasion is slow and its benefits can be ambiguous but where do you ultimately get without it?

Stomp on the gas reformers, but do take a look at the traffic conditions.  Your car won’t do you much good if it gets you and more importantly your passengers killed.

 


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