Craig Harris Throws His Other Shoe at the Charter Telescreen

July 12, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

GOLDSTEIN! Er CHARTER SCHOOLS!

In our last two-minute hate, the Arizona Republic’s Craig Harris fretted about the founders of Basis buying a condo in NYC. In this exciting episode, Harris throws his shoe at charter school facility procurement.

So let me start by saying I’m not sure how other states handle charter school facility procurement laws, and I am curious about it. It is however worth noting that Arizona provides the best access to charter schools by zip code, per this Hamilton Project map from Brookings:

Hmm, maybe other states should be doing what Arizona is doing. Also worth noting is the fact that Arizona charters are not only more proximate than other states, they are also crushing the ball academically (statewide averages in blue, statewide charter averages where available in red):

Arizona just might be doing something right in this space, so my elephant says “Careful about ‘fixing’ something that is not broken.”

Here is the missing context from this article- construction firms make profit from both the construction of charter and district schools. In recent years districts in the state of Arizona have been spending at a half-billion per year annual clip on facilities despite having relatively flat enrollment growth in aggregate.

Let’s put it on the table from the outset that this number could never be zero (air-conditioners die, roofs leak etc.) Moreover, some of this spending involves the districts who are big winners in open enrollment making seats to meet demand. I can’t make any complaint about this portion of the building spree-I like it.

Having said that, $500,000,000 per year is a lot of money (enough to pay every teacher in the state $10,000 per year more) and there are hundreds of thousands of empty seats in Arizona districts, which were badly overbuilt during the boom. The Arizona School Facilities Board lists 1.4m square feet of vacant district space (approximately 35% of the total) and strangely enough almost none of this space is suitable for a charter school (in the estimation of district officials).

The word on the street here in PHX is that a handful of the big construction firms find that $500,000,000 profitable enough to invest in bond and override campaigns. So…we continue building space, including in districts with declining enrollment like Scottsdale. Maybe a reporter should look into that…

Now back to the current Harris piece. It is lacking in context, giving no information about the relative profit margins in charter versus district construction. There are no non-profits building schools in Arizona to my knowledge. Moreover, the profits in this case only come about because of the demand for the school model. Without demand, the CMO in question would lack the funds to buy the buildings-ergo no profit. Contrast this with a district system with 1.4 million empty seats but continuing to build more of them despite flat aggregate demand and at an enormous annual cost despite huge spare capacity and the costs for vacant buildings drawing money out of the classroom.

So all in all, where does charter school construction profits rank in a list of school facility issues in your opinion?

 

 

 

 

 

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The Michigan Charter Lion Sleeps Happily Tonight with a Belly Full of Unjust Criticisms

July 3, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The world has a funny way of not behaving according to expectations. Michigan charters came under withering fire last year despite the fact that basically every bit of formal research available found that they produce better learning gains. Never you mind that whole “outcomes” business, Michigan charters were “Wild West” in nature and thus not to be trusted. Louisiana charters have been touted as a national model- properly gardened and/or quarterbacked etc. Some but certainly not all fans of Louisiana charter policies were also critics of Michigan charter policies.

The chart below constitutes the longest period that NAEP has data for LA charters on all four tests. Instead of the customary state flags, we’ll use the NFL logos of the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints:

Back in 2011 Louisiana charters tied Michigan charters on one of the four tests and had higher scores on the other three. The 2017 scores for MI charters on 4m, 8m, 4r and 8r were: 232, 272, 218 and 259 respectively. The 2017 scores for LA charters on the same exams for Louisiana: 214, 264, 197 and 254. Whether based upon scores or over time improvement, it seems odd indeed to hold that Michigan has awful policies to avoid at all cost while simultaneously holding that the rest of the country should drop what they are doing to emulate Louisiana.

The NAPCS dashboard that keeps track of such things is currently down but last I checked both LA and MI charters had tough student demographic profiles. We cannot know what role average school quality plays in these trends, so it is barely possible that statistical noise is consistently bouncing the way of Michigan charters over and over again (the 2015 exams also favor them) and consistently bounce against Louisiana charters repeatedly (the 2015 results were also trending down). Multiple formal studies of state scores in Michigan showing positive results leans heavily against such an already unlikely conclusion, as do similar negative trends in state charter scores in Louisiana.

I’m open to the fact that the world is complex. Perhaps there is some complicated reason why Michigan charters appear to be improving steadily, and some equally complex reason why Louisiana charter scores appear have declined. Just maybe Michigan charters deserved some of the criticisms they received, and perhaps Louisiana charter policies are not quite as terrible as the state and NAEP scores would seem to indicate. Occam’s razor may cut against such explanations, but no one is making an effort to offer them at all.

Using the Jonathan Haidt framework, my elephant is inclined to believe that “Wild West” is under-rated, and technocratic gardening is over-rated. My elephant believes that like the Dauphin of Shakespeare’s Henry V, opponents of relatively free-wheeling charter sectors “come over us with our wilder days, not measuring what use we made of them.” The rider of my elephant continues to bring me further reasons to believe this. He’s good at that. He’s also pretty good at finding flaws in the arguments of opponents, but Haidt has persuaded me that he is not to be fully trusted.

I could be wrong, but if so it will require the hate Michigan/love Louisiana tribe to poke holes in my theory/evidence as solid reasoning is a communal activity, not to be left to mere individuals.

 

 

 

 


Texas Charter Schools Enroll 85% Minority Students and they CRUSHED the 2017 NAEP

June 4, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Nation’s Report Card (aka the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP) released new student achievement data in April for Math and Reading exams given in 2017. Nationwide, the news was not good, and the same was generally true for scores in Texas. Figure 1 shows NAEP math and reading gains for 8th grade students since 2009 for states.

Texas 8th graders were scoring three points higher on math than 8th graders in 2009, but five points lower in reading. On these tests, 10 points is approximately equal to a grade level worth of average academic progress. Overall, Texas students failed to show much academic improvement during this period.

While Texas districts have floundered, Texas charter schools have flourished academically. Figure 2 presents the same information from states but includes the progress for Texas charter school students along with the statewide averages. At 315,200 students during the 2016-17 school year, Texas charter schools serves more students than 13 state public education systems.

The improvement in scores among Texas charter school students greatly exceed those of any state. Gains however are not the only consideration. Some states like Massachusetts failed to show large academic gains but had high scores in both 2009 and 2017. International comparisons show Massachusetts compares favorably to the top European and Asian school systems, so there is no shame in holding your mud with high scores. The next chart therefore plots 8th grade math gains (from 2009 to 2017) with overall scores (in 2017) for states and Texas charter students to take both improvement over time and overall level of achievement into account:

Texas charter students not only had higher gains than any state, they also demonstrated higher overall scores than most states. Each NAEP exam utilizes a new random sample of students, and the “sampling error” for subgroups exceeds that for states. Such sampling error however should be randomly distributed, meaning that Texas charter scores/gains could be either larger or smaller. The Reading exam however provides an entirely separate sample of students from the math exam, presented in Figure 4 below:

Texas charter students again show both larger gains than any state, and relatively impressive scores, especially when considering student demographics-leading us to our next subject.

Scores and gains this impressive naturally lead to the question of whether changes in student composition drive them. Only a random assignment study can definitively isolate the role of school quality in driving scores and gains, and such studies are impractical for statewide assessments. A Stanford University study utilizing state academic data from 2011 to 2015 using a student matching strategy found evidence of stronger academic growth for Hispanic students attending Texas charters after controlling for a variety of factors.

The demographic distribution of Texas charter schools stood at more than 85% minority in 2016-17 after having become increasingly majority-minority over the previous decade. Hispanics constituted 60 percent of Texas charter students in 2016-17. A comparison of Hispanic 8th grade math scores that accounted for both parental education and special program status (English Language Learners and Special Education) found that Hispanic students attending Texas charter schools outscored all statewide averages for Hispanic students.

This would have to be the case in order to make this happen:

NAEP can’t isolate the role of average school quality in these impressive scores. When however an 85% minority school sector out scores Vermont I’m cautiously optimistic that school quality had something to do with it.  Texas adds ~90,000 new K-12 students per year and the districts seem to be struggling both academically and financially in keeping up with the growth. Expanded opportunities for families to choose the sort of education to suit their needs and aspirations could help address both concerns.


Valerie Strauss Throws Her Shoe at the Telescreen

May 30, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The never ending two minute hate over at the Answer Sheet blog prints a long write up regarding the parental choice movement by Joanne Barkan. It is generally a color-by-numbers case for the evils of education reform, although I approve of her quoting of Rick Hess, who makes an important point.

Omitted from the saga is the part where school district elections often involve single digit rates for turnout, the decades of steadily increasing spending per pupil without substantially improved student learning outcomes, gigantic equity concerns, etc. These sort of concerns are artfully dodged with a simple “Over time, many Americans came to regard public education as a mainstay of democracy.”

The Emmanuel Goldstein of this story are the various villains supporting charter schools, private school choice, and standardized testing. Draining money, creating a terrible false impression of a non-existent academic crisis, etc.

In response, I offer the following chart from the NAEP. Florida started all of this nasty and brutish testing and choice business around about 1999. They did both of these things with relative gusto. If it is as terrible as all of that, we does NAEP show the percentage of Florida 4th graders unable to make heads or tails of 4th grade math and reading in sharp decline?

The last math NAEP given before the neo-liberal legion of darkness Jeb Bush and company instituted their reforms was 1996. The last reading pre-Jeb reading exam was 1998.

The lost golden age of late 1990s Florida K-12 involved almost half of students scoring below basic on both 4th grade math and reading. Sure Florida may have a much more diverse student body today than in 1998, and more of them seem to be learning, but ah, well, maybe it would have been even more progress if not for any of that nasty reform business, but color me skeptical.

 


AZ and TX Charter Sectors Tops in 2017 NAEP 8th Grade Math for Hispanic Students

May 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

“The Force is with you young Charter Tejanos but you are not a mathematics Jedi yet. We would be honored if you would join us in CeleNAEPing good times!”

-Darth Cactus


The Two-Minute Hate or Race to the Tap?

May 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Oceania of Orwell’s 1984 made use of a daily “two-minute hate” to whip people into a frenzy against enemies of the state. As wikipedia explains:

Within the book, the purpose of the Two Minutes Hate is said to satisfy the citizens’ subdued feelings of angst and hatred from leading such a wretched, controlled existence. By re-directing these subconscious feelings away from the Oceanian government and toward external enemies (which may not even exist), the Party minimizes subversive thought and behaviour.

So about now you are wondering to yourself “why are you flashing me back to junior year English class?” Good question- I guess it came to mind because of things like this and this.

Jonathan Haidt describes the mind as an elephant (instinct) and a rider that serves the elephant (reason). The rider serves the elephant by seeking out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs, and avoids contradictory information. Individuals are thus not trustworthy in reasoning in support of their beliefs, but are pretty good at knocking down the theories of others. If however you find yourself isolated in an ideologically homogeneous tribe no one is likely to point out glaring flaws in your thinking as they either cannot or don’t want to see them any more than you do.

The problems with the above pieces seem entirely obvious to me, but apparently were invisible to the Republic. I knew this article was heading in a bad direction when I saw a former campaign manager for David Garcia described as “former BASIS parent.” Both of these descriptions are true…but one is incomplete without the other. The reporter’s effort in establishing whether the CMO management fee was reasonable given the services provided more or less ended with an assurance from a professional charter skeptic that it wasn’t. Well, can’t much argue with that…

Now for the record I don’t know the percentage of K-12 funds typically spent on the services provided by the BASIS CMO either. Given the outputs BASIS produces, I’ll confess to being broadly indifferent as to whether districts spend more or less. The Reporter’s elephant wanted to believe it was high, and sure enough he found someone to make this claim. Neither of them produced any evidence, or a rationale as to why we should care.

The two-minute hate moves into throw your shoe territory when our intrepid reporter reveals that the founders of the CMO put down a down payment on a condo in New York City…which is near private schools they operate…which charge approximately four times the amount provided by Arizona taxpayers to provide the same education that Arizona children receive free of charge. In an organization including charter schools in Arizona, Texas and D.C. and private schools in China, Silicon Valley and NYC that the highest ROI part of the operation would be in the modestly funded but very high performing AZ charter schools. The Republic reporter’s elephant lumbered off in the opposite direction however, with his rider helping to raise a vague concern that somehow Arizona taxpayers were being short-changed er somehow. In other pieces we see assertions that BASIS gets more funding per pupil than district schools in Arizona. A quick trip to the JLBC however reveals this to be false- charter schools get less total public funding per pupil than district schools in Arizona.

It is also common to see an organization critical of charter schools, the Grand Canyon Institute, described as “non-partisan” in the pages of the Republic. Having spent a few minutes on their website, I could detect no overt attachment to any political party, but the philosophical leanings of the group are entirely obvious (left of center).

I spent a number of years at the Goldwater Institute, and we spent years in public disputes and filed lawsuits challenging both Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the memory fades, but I don’t recall the Republic referring to GI as “non-partisan.” When the GCI put out a report critical of charters, one of the paper’s columnists wrote that GCI “supports charter schools.” Things had just become soooo bad that they had no choice but to offer sharp but constructive criticism you see. GCI is run by a former official of the Janet Napolitano administration, and when I asked one of his former Napolitano colleagues about this assertion the reaction I received was “That’s absurd. George has always hated charter schools.” Again I assume that someone from GCI claimed to support charter schools, and it fit into what the columnist wanted to believe, but it isn’t terrible hard to check up on such things.

Now to be fair, the Republic does have some ideological diversity on the opinion page, which is approximately evenly split between a hard-left wing and an assortment of writers varying degrees to the right of Bernie Sanders. Center-right columnist Bob Robb has supported increased K-12 funding for years, but is an equal opportunity offender taking everyone from RedforEd to Governor Ducey to task. Centrist Joanna Allhands very helpfully noted for instance that er, guys, all schools raise money from parents, not just BASIS.

It’s not like the non-Bernie columnists challenge everything questionable put out by Team Bernie. If they did, they wouldn’t have much time to do anything else. The worst of it is that the news page seems be serving the elephant of the Bernie wing of the opinion pages: investigative pieces translate effortlessly into two-minute hate type opinion pieces.

For instance, when the Republic published a giant nothing-burger of a front page above the Sunday fold story about FOIAed emails between the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Department of Education concerning the administration of the ESA program. Now if any of these emails were any more exciting than Jonathan Butcher writing to the Department to say “Guys there are ESA parents out here who haven’t had their accounts funded on time and they are getting very upset about it” I assume the Republic would have shared them with us. Gleefully. Instead, the Reporter’s elephant went in search of someone who would confirm that there was something very naughty going on:

“This is almost an iron grip-level of influence from the beginning of the process on,” said Thomas Holyoke, an associate professor of political science at California State University-Fresno, who studies interest groups and lobbying.

“This sounds like a full-service operation; it wasn’t just writing the legislation,” he added. “You have elected officials, who are supposed to be repositories of the public’s trust, who are pushing legislation and probably building careers off of big, high-profile bills that have some potentially extremely far-reaching effects.

I won’t rehash the glaring flaws in this story here, but will ask a very basic question: if the Goldwater Institute had an “iron grip” on the administration of the program, isn’t it reasonable to think that accounts would be funded on time, proper records kept, etc?

Team Bernie on the opinion pages lapped it up. Worse still, when the Goldwater Institute asked to publish a response, the Republic chose not to publish it.  This sort of thing has led to a large number of right of center Arizonans to angrily mutter about how they cancelled their subscriptions years ago, that the Republic is hopelessly biased, they only hung on for as long as they did to read Robb, etc.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were willing to join this line of thinking. I believe that keeping some common institutions to be of unspeakable importance. Checking out to entomb oneself in a comfortable echo chamber is a path to hopeless polarization. A few years ago the Arizona Chamber of Commerce began a “Race to the Tap” event with the hope of getting people from different K-12 silos at least occasionally talking to each other.

I’m pretty sure that Geoff Esposito pictured here with yours-truly makes Laurie Roberts look like a second coming of Barry Goldwater. I’m fairly confident that Geoff helped to draft the catastrophic mistake of a soak the rich tax initiative the Invest in Ed ballot initiative that would raise Arizona incomes taxes to New Jersey levels. Geoff and I don’t agree on much related to K-12, but we do listen to each other, which is an art that Americans are losing much to our detriment. Arizona could use a good deal more tap and less two-minute hates.

 


I Bless the Schools Down in Michigan

May 2, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Neerav Kingsland has written a response to posts by Jay and yours truly on Louisiana charters generally and the Recovery School District specifically. I will begin by confessing a sin- Neerav is correct that I go a bit over the top at times. The “Prime Directive” of JPGB has always been first and foremost for the authors to entertain ourselves. We do occasionally take ideas seriously, but we try to keep things light around here, which often involves reasoning by pop-culture analogy. Maybe some gratuitous use of an animated gif here or there, or an occasional musical interlude. All in moderation of course…

Like Leo Moracchioli we try not to take ourselves too seriously, but one idea that I do take very seriously is the one quoted in the original post from Jonathan Haidt, which merits repetition:

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position that he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. 

But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it is so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or an advisory board).

I do not wish to allow even the JPGB Prime Directive to interfere in this. I appreciate that David Osborne offered some comments, and that Neerav also took the time to respond in a civil fashion. I offer an apology if my bombast lacked civility as it must not interfere in the free exchange of evidence and ideas.

On the substance, I’ll offer the following comments in the spirit of the Haidt quote:

My preexisting bias before the release of the 2017 NAEP was that the Louisiana RSD was a clever policy innovation given the circumstances of post-Katrina New Orleans, but that the concept employed enormous amounts of financial and human capital. Perhaps too much of both to be of general interest.

David Osborne noted in a comment that only 43% of Louisiana charters are New Orleans RSD charters, which is a fair point to make. This however is about 43% more than the typical state, and a portion of the rest Louisiana’s charters are RSD charters operating outside New Orleans. Osborne noted in a comment that those charters aren’t going so well. In my preexisting frame, I interpret this as RSD not being able to make the trip down the Atchafalaya Bridge from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, much less to other states. This seems like confirmatory evidence to me, but maybe not. If not, why not?

NAEP data is still indeed inexact on this point, but state testing data for New Orleans specifically has also been in decline. NAEP shows large statewide declines in charter scores since 2013, and the state’s own testing data pointing in the same direction specifically for New Orleans. 

What sort of evidence would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the RSD model is very difficult to replicate and to sustain?  We all have theories of change, but is this one falsifiable? I believe that the combination of statewide NAEP scores and the decline of state test scores in New Orleans is an issue. I’m in favor of RSD continuing in New Orleans, but nothing about the evidence produced last few years is giving me the itch to replicate it in my home town.

Speaking of Phoenix, Neerav (correctly) noted a Credo multivariate study showing meh charter results in Arizona. Harvard’s Marty West found similar results, but both Credo and West used data that ended in 2012. I won’t go into the details here but I believe Credo, West, recent NAEP and recent AZMerit can all be correct. The 2012 Philadelphia Eagles went 4-12 but they won the Superbowl last season. Between lots of openings, closings, and schools maturing past their training wheels stage, AZ charters turned over their roster like a pro-sports team.

RSD advocates have a theory of change largely based upon increased state test scores in New Orleans. The more recent state data and NAEP however both seem to be signalling a warning sign. If this is just my preconceived notions getting the better of me, please help me out. Nevermind Arizona, based on anything and everything we can gather from Credo, NAEP, recent state scores and even random assignment studies, why should Louisiana charter policies be touted in preference to Michigan’s based upon the available results?

 

 

 

 


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