Education Freedom is…a Millennial

January 4, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the recent closing of BAEO has me reflecting a bit. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program passed in 1990, followed by the first charter school statute in 1991 in Minnesota. This makes the choice movement a millennial. Like many millennials, the education choice movement is still a little rough around the edges, still a little up in the air about whether she’s going to pull it all together. She does show promise, but just might be holding herself back despite some lessons learned the hard way that she does not quite, really want to confront and accept. Lessons like:

  1. It’s counter-intuitive but if you want to help poor kids with choice it is best to include everyone.
  2. Central planning efforts can and do backfire, even when your intentions are good.
  3. When you go outside and talk to normal people you learn important things away from the reformosphere bubble.
  4. Politics has some basic rules-know them.

Needless to say, there are more, which you can add in the comments. I for one am optimistic that our sometimes out of sorts millennial is going to make it after all.


2017 in review

December 29, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So…let’s start with the good news: despite dire predictions of apocalypse, human civilization is still alive and kicking. No global trade wars broke out, the economy shows signs of life. If you google around a bit you can learn things like that the Trump administration is running at about half of the pace for deportations from the Obama administration peak.

That’s all I have to say about that. Ok I take it back-you should also read this. Keep your fingers crossed.

The early days of 2017 looked like the year might be a complete K-12 dumpster fire as (too) much of ed reform world went into a Patty Hearst level of Stockholm Syndrome. The response to the K-12 version of the polarization trap went in the direction of “Gaghghghghgh!!!! The sky is falling!!!!! Quick make something up about Detroit charter schools!”

It should be obvious now that this was overwrought. As it happens 2017 goes into the books as a mixed year on the choice front, contra the fears of DeVosaphobes. Advances in Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin were offset by a setback in Nevada and a cliffhanger in Arizona. The initial drama surrounding the prospect for federal legislation eventually simmered towards an incremental approach sans apocalypse. Kentucky passed a charter school law, but not one likely to produce many charter schools. There are people getting excited for and against the 529 provision, but color me mostly meh. Other provisions of the tax bill may wind up being more significant.

There was a lot of discussion of ESSA plans. I’m not sure why. Perhaps 2018 will see more of the ESSA cottage industry think through the implications of NGO school rating systems. What’s that? Okay I’ll mark my calendar for 2084. Later?!? Fine. Meanwhile approximately 3,650,000 additional Baby Boomers reached the age of 65 in 2017. No one on either side of the aisle in DC seemed to notice. Arguments over inaugural crowd sizes and Russian conspiracy theories took precedence. Excuse me 2018? I’ll have another 3.65m please! Oh and send the check over to the kiddie table.

Perhaps the most encouraging news I heard this year came from the Modern States Project. MSP developed MOOCs and free online textbooks designed to allow students to pass AP/CLEP courses for only the cost of the exam (~$85.) This looks like a straightforward solution to the credit problem, at least in lower level courses and inches the ball closer to free.

The 2017 NAEP will be released in a few months. Election years don’t usually serve as the setting for broad K-12 reforms, but my money is on Greg beating Mathews yet again.

Let’s see what happens next.






Chicago Mystery Solved?

December 27, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Large scale out-migration of low-income students may help explain Chicago’s apparent status as a value added champ.

David Osborne on Charter Policy

December 5, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Bob Bowdon interviews David Osborne and around the 8 minute mark the discussion raises the topic as to whether parents can lead the way in school closure. Osborne claims that parents cling to schools for non-academic reasons and should not be trusted with this task. Bowden raises Arizona as a counter-example, and Osborne cites research from five years ago that found Arizona charter schools had less than stellar results.

Osborne is correct that research from five years ago found less than stellar results. What one must appreciate however is that in a sector as dynamic as Arizona charters those results are ancient history. Charter schools are constantly opening and closing in Arizona. The studies referenced by Osborne have data that ended in 2012. In 2013 Arizona educators opened 87 new charter schools and closed 18 other schools. This alone was enough to mean that the Arizona charter school sector of 2013 was a different animal than the 2012 sector, but it was hardly the only change to happen that year. In addition to schools, teachers, students and administrators moved in and out of Arizona charter sector. Younger schools gained a year of experience, moving out of their shake down cruises. A professional football team can win the Superbowl in one year and fail to make the playoffs the next year, and there is a greater degree of year to year continuity in sports than in Arizona charters. Fortunately all the available indicators (NAEP and AZMerit) show over time improvement in Arizona charters.

And then, it all happened again in 2014…and 2015…and 2016…and right now. Any look into academic results in a constantly changing Arizona charter sector is merely a snapshot. This makes it entirely possible for analysts like CREDO and Marty West to have found meh results in 2012 but for NAEP to show this in 2015:

This river of course runs both ways- the 2015 NAEP is just a snapshot as well. Fortunately Arizona’s charter results were also strong in the 2015 AZMerit, got better in the 2016 AZMerit and better still in the 2017 AZMerit.

Although Arizona law requires admission lotteries and Arizona charters educate a majority minority student body, there is obviously room for multiple factors to explain the above chart. Nevertheless, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Arizona’s AZMerit exam also shows large advantages for charter school students. In addition, school data of the sort CREDO and West relied upon five years ago is quite messy , especially when it comes to free and reduced lunch status. I won’t go into details but let’s just say that the record keeping at the Arizona Department of Education doesn’t always cover itself in glory and in addition many Arizona charter schools do not participate in the federal program at all. The use of Free and Reduced Lunch as an independent variable has grown increasingly questionable over time, but has been problematic for a long time in Arizona.

So in conclusion, Arizona charters are crushing the academic ball without the benevolent guidance of heavy handed technocrats. The same is true is several other Western states that show either high scores, high over time progress or else both of these things:

If Mr. Osborne would care to explain why westerners should abandon what they are doing to emulate Louisiana, I’m all ears but data from five years ago is of little more than historical interest to discussions of prospective policy.

NAEP Cohort Gains by Scores for State Charter Sectors

December 4, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So to get into this chart you had to have a NAEP math score for your charter sector in the 2011 4th grade test, and then again for 8th graders in 2015. Many states either have no charter schools at all, or too few charter schools in 2011 (NC for example), or too few charter schools in 2011 or 2015 to make either sample. Some states fell into this lattercategory despite having venerable charter laws (yes I’m looking at you Indiana and Nevada). If you don’t see your state on the chart, keep calm and open more charter schools.

Otherwise a few notes: Pennsylvania and Maryland both look to have accidentally forgot their charter students any math between 4th grade in 2011 and 8th grade in 2015. I mean there is a few points of gain but one would expect that simply through aging. There might be something odd going on with the sampling or inclusion standards, but if I lived there, I’d be anxious to get to the bottom of it. I don’t so I’m not.

Michigan had the same progress over time as Louisiana despite the fact that Louisiana has been supported with philanthropy and TFA kids to a much larger extent.

Arizona and Colorado are sitting on the bench in the second half eating hot dogs and watching their backups brutalize their hapless opponents.

In Memoriam for Parental Choice Irrational Exuberance

November 22, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I listened to the Federalist podcast this morning on my bike ride in which Megan McArdle debates Joy Pullman on school vouchers. In the discussion McArdle posits that parental choice programs allow parents to sort their kids for the purposes of being around other kids who are likely to want to go to college etc. She acknowledged that her instinct on this is informed by observation in the District of Columbia where she resides and that this has always been the case, it simply used to involve moving the suburbs. McArdle forsees a low-ceiling for choice as McArdle asserts that there are only so many good peer groups to go around, and large influxes of poor kids will lead to upper-middle class parents seeking to segregate their children elsewhere. Thus McArdle puts forward an air of jaded realism for choice as opposed to her optimistic days when she thought of parental choice as a cure for poverty. Worse still, her thesis would imply costs to choice for disadvantaged student groups.

Fortunatley, McArdle’s realism is not terribly realistic. Policy enthusiasts of all sorts and persuasions create problems for themselves when they sell their reform as a wonder drug that will cure the world’s pain and will do it today. People who buy in during the naive enthusiasm stage will invariably feel disappointed. This for instance is starting to happen with technology based personalized learning now.

The course of innovation does not run smoothly or in a predictable fashion. Technology enhanced learning may have a very bright future, but faces a messy process of sorting through things whether it ultimately proves out or not. The bubble provides a useful example. People of a certain age will recall the naive enthusiasm stage when any idiot who could mumble Silicon Valley lingo was able to get millions in venture capital funding for projects like or whatever. When a great many of these dubious ventures went bust in the early aughts a fierce backlash mocked the broad notion that the internet was going to profoundly change business.

Give it some time however and no one is mocking now. The internet did profoundly change business and life and continues to do so- it just didn’t do it much by 2003, and not in the way we expected.

McArdle’s thesis combines elements of the disappointed naive early enthusiasm with a theory that those not exercising choice may be harmed by it. A large empirical literature on competitive effects however finds positive benefits from choice from students choosing to remain in district schools. The kids “left behind” in other words benefit academically from the fact that they have the possibility of leaving.

My home state of Arizona is a hot-bed for parental choice. We not only have the highest state percentage of students attending charter schools and private choice programs, recently data has come available showing that inter-and-intra district choice dwarfs both charter and private choice in the state. Arizona, a relatively low spending state (relative to other states not to its own past) that is in the midst of a border-state transition in student demographics (K-12 students ceased being majority Anglo years ago), is an odd state to be leading the nation in academic gains. Oh, well, we went and did it anyway.

Now McArdle’s thesis of tradeoffs and downsides should be visible in the academic trends for disadvantaged students. If the savvy parents are the ones exercising choice, and depriving disadvantaged kids of more ambitious peers, we might expect to see overall scores increasing but scores for disadvantaged kids sliding in Arizona’s results. Instead we see the opposite:

This of course does not prove that school choice lead to the larger than average gains, but good luck explaining how this happened if school choice were harmful to disadvantaged students.

At the 8th grade level, NAEP allows for tracking student achievement by the education status of their parents. This is what it looks like for students whose parents did not finish high school for the entire period we can track all three tests:

If these charts were reversed and we saw disadvantaged children showing less progress than the national average, but stupendous gains for already advantaged kids, that would be consistent with McArdle’s thesis. If I wanted to beat the horse into horse-burger I could put up similar charts by ethnicity and disability status. You have a very, very hard time finding supportive evidence of choice harming the disadvantaged in the academic trends of the nation’s most choice happy state, or in the broad empirical literature.

Improvement of schooling outcomes maybe a necessary but hardly a sufficient step in inter-generational poverty. Choice programs have triggered a process of opening up the suburbs to open enrollment in Arizona, and they seem to be doing something similar in Indiana. The choice movement made a grave error in fixating on a particular type of school in inner cities, and then became obsessed with “accountability” when the urban-only strategy floundered.

I’m confident that the evidence will prove out that broad, inclusive programs work out better for students by hugely broadening available options relative to the necessarily limited efforts to build new charters. If you want to help inner city kids, yes you give them access to private schools and charter schools. If you really want to help them you give them access to all of that and the leafy suburbs (see above charts). You can’t force the burbs to take out of district kids, but you can create the right incentives by subjecting their (all too often complacent and underperforming) schools competition as well. You create enough competition to allow parents to close schools they don’t like. Expect backlash from reactionaries along the way. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, it lacks magical powers. It can however deliver real benefits to students and taxpayers.