Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

April 23, 2019

(Guest post by Patrick J. Wolf)

I’ve led or assisted with seven rigorous longitudinal evaluations of privately- or publicly-funded private school choice programs. Each one has yielded a big surprise.

The three-city evaluation Paul Peterson led discovered that partial-tuition K-12 scholarships had no clear effect on student test scores overall, but clearly benefited African American students.  The original evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found only suggestive evidence of achievement effects of the federal school voucher program, and only in reading, but identified big positive effects of the program on high school graduation rates. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program evaluation I co-led with John Witte confirmed that the original urban school voucher program had clear effects on multiple measures of student educational attainment but also produced reading test score gains when the tests were high-stakes for the private schools in the program. An experimental study of a partial-tuition scholarship program in India, for which I provided assistance, found clear achievement effects only for girls.

Then there is our four-year longitudinal evaluation of the Louisiana Scholarship Program. In our first set of reports we found that the LSP had positive effects on public school racial integration, as reported here, here, and here. We also discovered that competitive pressure from the statewide expansion of the school voucher program in 2012 had neutral or positive effects on the test scores of students in affected public schools. Our big surprise, however, was that participants in the voucher program scored significantly lower on the state accountability test than their control group peers, especially in the first year of the program and particularly in math. Those negative test score effects of the voucher program were somewhat smaller after two years and even statistically insignificant in Year 3, when the state switched to a different test and held schools harmless for the results.  What would happen in Year 4?  More surprises, it turns out.

Today we released the results of our final set of four technical research reports on the LSP.  The experimental impacts of winning a lottery to your first-choice private school and enrolling in that school for any period of time were negative and back to statistically significant for all of our statistical models in math and some of them in reading. African American students experienced smaller negative achievement effects than did students of other races. Students whose first-choice private schools had higher tuitions, larger enrollments, and longer school days experienced relatively “better” test score effects than students whose first-choice schools didn’t have those features.

Winning an LSP school lottery had no impact on the rates at which students in our study subsequently enrolled in either a two-year or four-year college. The rate was 60.0% for students in the LSP experimental treatment group and 59.5% in the experimental control group. Those college enrollment rates are relatively high for the population of low-income students eligible to apply for the LSP, in part because Louisiana has enacted a series of programs to encourage college access.

Finally, the LSP succeeded in attracting students from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The students who remained in the LSP three years after applying to it were more likely to be eligible for the federal lunch program, African American, and female than the average K-12 student in Louisiana. Students with lower initial test scores than the state average more likely to apply to the LSP than were students with higher test scores.  Among the students who won LSP school lotteries, those with lower initial test scores were more likely to use an LSP voucher for at least three years.

Debates will rage about what has been learned from this one, latest, rigorous evaluation of a private school choice program. Commentators should keep in mind that the LSP has design features that make it unlike most school choice programs. It is the only statewide school voucher program that requires participating schools to adopt an open admissions policy and administer the state accountability test to their voucher-using students. Survey experiments here, and here, have found that those two regulatory provisions tend to decrease the interest of private school leaders in participating in school choice programs. Only about one-third of Louisiana private schools choose to participate in the LSP.

Serious, rigorous studies of private school choice programs should continue. So far, results keep surprising because it appears that the effects of these programs are highly dependent on their design and context. I wouldn’t be surprised if more surprises await.

And the Higgy Goes to… Kosoko Jackson

April 15, 2019


It is time once again to (dis)honor the recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  We have a smaller but still (un)excellent set of nominees to consider.  I failed to submit my own nominee as I was paralyzed by such a target-rich environment and then came down with a fever just when I needed to make a decision and write it.  Oh well. Higgy nominees are evergreen, so I’ll keep those possibilities in mind for next year.

So we had three nominees to consider: Richard Henry Pratt, nominated by Matt, Kosoko Jackson,  nominated by Greg, and William N. Sheats, nominated by Patrick Gibbons.  While they are all very (un)worthy nominees, I think Kosoko Jackson is clearly most deserving.  Pratt and Sheats were much more like BSDDers than the kind of PLDDers we are seeking for the Higgy.

Sheats mustered the coercive power of the state to amend Florida’s constitution to forbid integrated instruction in Florida public schools.  Pratt embarked on a systematic government program to remove Native American children from their families to be educated in boarding schools that would raise them as “real Americans,” which was tantamount to obliterating an entire people, their language, their religion, and their customs.  Whenever people start arguing that we need public schools to create a common sense of identity and shared understanding of democratic citizenship, remember that line of thinking ultimately leads to Pratt. Both Sheats and Pratt are horrifying, but too horrifying for the Higgy.

Jackson is the winning nominee because his dictatorial behavior was really about self-advancement, not truly oppressing large numbers of people.  Jackson joined in social media witch hunts that falsely called out competing authors (falsely) for alleged infractions of the Young Adult Fiction politically correct code.  That was working well to clear the path for his own career until the mobs came after Jackson.

Posturing on social media as woker-than-thou to advance one’s stupid career and at the expense of a commitment to truth, good sense, and professional courtesy… .  Hmmm, does this sound like something familiar?

Anyhoo, Jackson joins past winners, John Wiley BryantPlato, Chris Christie, Jonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.

The System Is Beyond Reform

April 10, 2019

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

“I get adequate food, and adequate clothing, and medical care when I require it,” said U.S. Naval Commander Jeremiah Denton to the camera. But his eyes told a different story.

Denton was a prisoner of war. He had been captured in 1965 after being shot down near Thanh Hoa. After severely torturing Denton, his captors forced him to make a propaganda video intended, in part, to show how humane his Communist “hosts” were. Though his mouth repeated (some of) what his captors demanded, his eyes blinked a different message, unmistakable to those who knew Morse Code: T-O-R-T-U-R-E.

I couldn’t help but think of Denton when reading Checker Finn’s recent valedictory essay summing up the lessons he had learned during his self-described “tour of duty” on the Maryland State Board of Education. His keyboard sounded notes of hope and encouragement about reforming the district school system (“[D]on’t give up. It’s not totally hopeless. Moments of opportunity arise. Stars have been known to align. Gains, however incremental, can be made.“), but reading the piece, one got the sense that Checker was blinking out a different message: “THE SYSTEM IS BEYOND REFORM.”

Why? Well, let Checker explain.

Opponents of reform are powerful and entrenched.

Even though the political stars aligned enough that all twelve school board members had been appointed by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, the bureaucracy was able to slow-walk and even stifle reforms:

When our board took significant initiatives of its own, we ran into problems. Our new school-accountability plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which began with the merest hint during board conversations that perhaps the state should actually intervene in chronically failing schools, led to legislation designed to thwart any such move, claiming that our very words were a dire threat to local control. All major stakeholder groups—not just the powerful teachers unions, but also the school boards and superintendents’ groups—joined forces to block any assertive version of building-level accountability. This legislative blockade had happened before in Maryland, including back when long-serving state superintendent (Saint) Nancy Grasmick proposed outsourcing a few dire inner-city schools.

Would-be reformers are dependent on entrenched interests to provide them with needed information and to implement reforms.

State education departments are as set in their ways and as attuned to traditional stakeholders and their interests as are schools and districts. The first response to any reform suggestion is sure to be some combination of “here’s why that would be really hard to do” and “let’s consult the stakeholders and get their reactions and ideas.” The state superintendent is somewhere in between, formally (in Maryland and many states) accountable to the board that hired him/her but also enmeshed in the state’s longstanding assumptions, obligations, bureaucratic procedures (and capacities), and intertwined educator-career paths.

As a board member, however, you are dependent on that very same bureaucracy—and superintendent—to supply you with information, prepare your briefing materials, develop the policy options, draft the regulations, meet with stakeholders, and much more. How, exactly, do you serve as an independent check on—much less a future-oriented change agent for—a sclerotic agency that supplies you with the very stuff you need to play that role? […]

And as a board member, know that if your reform idea is not on the chief’s agenda, or he or she thinks it may undermine something that is, he or she has a thousand ways to subvert, slow-walk, or otherwise sideline it. So does the board’s attorney who is typically a career state employee and battle-weary veteran of many boards that came before yours and who expects to counsel many that will come after. That individual can (and is apt to) cite a hundred precedents, regulatory fine points, court rulings, and legislative histories that allegedly show why what you and your colleagues want to change simply cannot be done.

Political control favors those who are organized and powerful.

On one occasion, their reform effort was actually blocked by the governor who had appointed them:

In another realm, we had some support from legislators and local controllers but actually found ourselves battling the governor who named us. In that instance, business interests in Ocean City persuaded Hogan, whose enthusiasm for crowd-pleasing gestures has long been manifest, to vouchsafe the integrity of summer vacation by blocking any moves to lengthen the school year. Never mind that a huge number of less-than-proficient youngsters, many of them poor and minority, would benefit from more instructional time. Instead, he issued an executive order that essentially barred districts from opening school before Labor Day or remaining open after June 15. The initial order allowed waivers, however, and our board signaled that it would generously grant them. Hogan hastily revised his order to close that loophole. Here again, as with school accountability, we were doing our best to look after the interests of children but, here again, grownup priorities prevailed. (As I write—two years after that dust-up—legislators and Hogan are battling over whether to loosen the calendar restrictions.)

It’s not hard to figure out what happened here. Low-income families stand to gain the most from extending the school year, but that would interfere with the summer plans of wealthier families with a great deal more political capital. In a system where such decisions are made centrally via a political process, those with less political power lose.

Checker’s last lesson is “don’t despair” but he seems to be saying that ironically as the few reforms his board successfully managed to adopt fall woefully short of meaningfully reforming the system:

Constrained as we were by legislators, we still managed to create a wholly new school-accountability system that was—and is—better than anything that preceded it. (Schools now get “star” ratings, for example. Gifted kids qualify as a “subgroup” whose progress must be disclosed. There’s more.) Our efforts to overhaul high-school-graduation requirements and teacher-certification practices, though resisted by stakeholders’ addiction to the status quo, coincided with the work of an influential statewide education-reform commission and produced a unified array of worthwhile, if imperfect, recommendations for change. And on those occasions when the state superintendent’s own priorities turned out to align with the board’s—well, even the bureaucracy could end up helping more than hindering!

It is telling that the only two “successes” he touts include:

  • a new top-down accountability system (the effectiveness of which is yet unknown and likely to be undermined); and
  • a mere list of recommendations (“worthwhile, if imperfect”).

It doesn’t take a Straussian to get the real message: build new, don’t reform old.

If so, ed reformers should abandon the technocratic top-down reforms that have little to no hope of significantly improving the unreformable system and put all their efforts into building alternatives to it.

If Every Instinct You Have is Wrong…

April 9, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite” Jerry discovers that he is “Even Steven” in that setbacks are quickly followed by gains and his life basically remains the same. Meanwhile, George slowly morphs from a loser living in his parents basement to getting hired by the New York Yankees after giving George Steinbrenner a dressing down about the poor management of the franchise. Meanwhile Elaine ruins a merger of her company and finds herself unemployed. “I’ve become George,” she glumly observes. I often think of this episode when reading odd summaries of Arizona’s K-12 which are opposite of reality. Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego for instance recently wrote a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos making a variety of claims about education in Arizona. The letter however makes a variety of claims about which are demonstrably mistaken. I’d like to address the following paragraph in particular:

Arizona public schools have improved performance over time rather than seeing performance decline. Student performance, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has improved both in the aggregate and across a variety of subgroups as shown in the figure below, which shows NAEP data from the first NAEP exam that includes all states (2003) to the most recent data available (2017) in 8th grade reading and math.

NAEP gains have improved Arizona’s subgroup rankings in overall proficiency by subgroup. For instance the chart below shows where Arizona Black students ranked compared to Black students in other states in 2003 on the left, 2017 on the right on 8th grade math. Moreover, as shown in the figure above, the largest Arizona gains were made by Black students in math (16 points), Hispanic students in reading (14 points) and American Indian students in Reading (16 points). Each of these student groups displayed a command of math and reading at 8th graders in 2017 that we might have reasonable expected their 2003 peers to have shown as 10th graders.


Here is the breakdown for Hispanic students:

Here is the breakdown for Anglo students:

If these levels of gains and proficiency represented the “fifth worst” school system,  the rest of the world would be looking at America’s international test scores with envy.  It seems profoundly unlikely that Arizona students would be making these enviable academic gains if choice harmed their education. Most Arizona students in Maricopa County attend a school other than their assigned district school. Students attending other district options however outnumber charter students by nearly two to one. Statewide charter student vastly outnumber private choice students in Arizona. Individual district schools both lose and gain students through family decisions. Choice is being done primarily by district schools rather than to district schools. Schools which fail to gain the confidence of families as the best option for their child do lose enrollment, but the positive academic trends show that Arizona schools are rising to the challenge rather than wilting under pressure.

Opponents of choice often conflate it with spending, which is misleading. A great many factors influence public school spending- the wealth of a state, the relative priority placed on K-12 compared to contending priorities like health care and higher education, local and state elections on funding and age demographics-states with lots of elderly and young people. One of the factors influencing per pupil funding trends is enrollment growth. Fast growing states have a harder time in accommodating growth and spending more per pupil at the same time. Arizona had the largest increase in per pupil spending among states with a 20% or more growth in enrollment between 2000 and 2015.

I will however agree with Representative Gallego to this extent: Arizona’s academic improvement is not a coincidence. They represent a huge amount of hard work put in by Arizona students and teachers and some very underestimated policies.  This is not to say there isn’t more progress needed (there is) but these gains don’t have “man-hands” or eat their peas one at time and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

William N. Sheats for the Higgy

April 8, 2019

William N. Sheats, Florida Superintendent of Public Instruction

(Guest Post by Patrick Gibbons)

William N. Sheats was Florida’s very first elected superintendent of public instruction, serving from 1893 to 1904 and again from 1913 until his death in 1922.

As the state’s leading educator, Sheats worked tirelessly to modernize Florida’s education system. He drafted the first statewide curriculum, reformed teacher training and required teachers to pass exams to prove subject-area mastery. He passed the state’s compulsory-attendance law in 1919 and made Florida’s public school system one of the best funded among southern states.

Contemporaries called him the “father of Florida’s public school system.”

As a chair of the education committee during Constitutional Convention of 1885, Sheats nearly caused panic among Democrats when he proposed allowing taxes to support the creation of common schools for black students. Thirty-two members of his own party voted against him. He invited Booker T. Washington to speak before white educators and helped secure public funds for the American Missionary Association’s Fesseden Academy, a college and career preparatory school in rural Florida. Sheats even lost his re-election in 1903 after Florida Education Association Vice President Clementine Hampton, along with the editor of the Gainesville Sun, smeared him as a “Friend of the Negro.”

One can argue that black students may have been worse-off without Sheats as the state superintendent, but the Higgy is not about recognizing the worst or most evil human being. For all the good he may have tried to accomplish, Sheats’ paternalistic racism left lasting scars.

Education, Sheats believed, would “make the vast number of idle, absolutely worthless negroes industrious and self-supporting.”

Sheats enshrined segregation into Florida’s Constitution of 1885, personally writing Article XII, Section 12 which states:

“White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school, but impartial provision shall be made for both.”

It would remain in Florida’s constitution until 1968.

Sheats fervently believed in racial segregation. As he saw it, “any effort to enforce mixed education of the races would forever destroy the public school system in one swoop.”

Fearing teachers might sway impressionable young minds, Sheats used the power of his office to outlaw hiring teachers trained at racially integrated northern colleges. He also outlawed white teachers from educating black students in public schools. The combination of strict certification requirements, a ban on white teachers educating black students, and a rule preventing teachers trained at integrated colleges meant many public schools for black students with a shortage of teachers. By 1924, two years after his death, the rules he left in place meant only 1 out of every 4 black teachers were state certified.

When Sheats learned of Orange Park Normal & Industrial School, a racially integrated private school operating outside of Jacksonville, he lashed out, calling the school a “social and moral blotch,” and a “vile encroachment upon our social and moral system.” With the constitution mandating racial segregation only in public schools, Sheats lobbied the legislature to pass a bill outlawing whites from educating black and white students within the same building.

The New York Times reported in 1896 that the law “provided that it should be a penal offense” for any person or organization to run a school, public, private or parochial, “wherein white persons and negroes should be instructed or boarded within the same building or taught in the same class, or at the same time, by the same teacher.” Those found guilty could be fined between $150 and $500 or imprisoned for three to six months.

With the law passed, Sheats ordered the arrest of the school principal, three patrons, five teachers and even the local minister. In October 1896, a judge in the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida tossed out the law on a technicality and Sheats went to work trying to pass a new law. He wouldn’t succeed until after returning to office in 1913. Known as “Sheats Law” the state of Florida now banned “white persons from teaching Negroes in Negro schools.” The law also prohibited black teachers from educating white students.

Facing declining enrollment, attacks from the KKK, wariness over legal expenses and threats of arrest, Orange Park Normal & Industrial School closed its doors for good. After two decades, Sheats had finally succeeded in shuttering Florida’s first and only racially integrated school. A Catholic school under the leadership of 34-year old Bishop Michael Joseph Curley stepped up to fight the law. When Sheats asked Bishop Curley to remove white teachers from the school he refused and vowed to fight the law all the way to the Supreme Court.

Arrests wouldn’t happen until April 1916 when Gov. Park Trammell, at the instance of Sheats, ordered the arrest of three Catholic sisters who taught at St. Benedict the Moore School in St. Augustine, Fla. They were charged with “unlawfully teaching negroes in a negro school.” The arrest of the three sisters attracted national attention, but it also forced black private schools throughout the state to temporarily cease operations or risk arrest.

Fortunately, the case was resolved quickly. On May 20, 1916, Judge George Cooper Gibs ruled the “Sheats Law” unconstitutional, declaring,

“Has a white teacher any the less right to sell his services to negro pupils than a white doctor to negro patients, or a white lawyer to negro clients, or a white merchant as a right to sell his goods to negro customers, and vice versa?”

Sheats enshrined segregation into Florida’s constitution and fathered a system of uniform public schools that were ultimately a system of separate and unequal schools. From 1885 until well into the 1960s, Florida’s public-school system required separate attendance zones for white and black students, even if they lived in the same neighborhood. Segregation became “so entrenched that school superintendents were required to keep separately the books used in white and Negro schools.” Even the tax dollars used for white and black schools could not comingle.

Although he dared to fund education for black students when many contemporaries of his time would not, he ultimately created and enforced a regime of racial segregation and inequality that lasted 83 years. For that, he deserves the dishonor of the Higgy.

The Achievement-Attainment Disconnect Strikes Again!

April 2, 2019

I’ve lost track of how many studies with rigorous causal identification find that improving test scores is not associated with improving later life outcomes, like graduating high school, attending and completing college, and getting a job and earning higher salaries.  In the area of school choice alone we now have dozens of such studies, but you can also find this achievement-attainment disconnect in rigorous studies of pre-school and other interventions.

You can add to this list the latest study from Mathematica on the long-term effects of attending a charter middle school. Mathematica examined lotteries at a sample of charter middle schools around the nation, comparing outcomes for lottery winners to those of lottery losers.  When the original results were completed almost a decade a ago, they found no overall effect on test scores.  But when they disaggregated results, they found that urban charters had a significantly positive effect while suburban charters had the opposite result.  This prompted leaders in the charter and ed reform worlds to conclude that we should focus our efforts on urban charters, since those were the ones that “worked.”

Now Mathematica has followed-up on those students to see whether they eventually attended and completed college.  The new results show that attending a charter middle school has no effect on attending or completing college, just as it had no overall effect on test scores.  But — and this is the important part for our discussion — they also concluded:

The success of an individual charter middle school in improving college outcomes was not related to its success in improving middle school achievement. The study schools that improved middle school achievement were not consistently more successful than others in boosting college enrollment and completion.

So, all of those technocratically-minded ed reformers who thought we should focus on urban charters because test scores showed they “worked” were guilty of mis-judging long-term success based on unreliable short-term measures.  The evidence shows that changing test scores is not a particularly good indicator of schools that will improve their students’ lives.

City Fund, NACSA, and others who support portfolio management, harbor-mastering, quarterbacking, or whatever marketing term they are using nowadays are once again left trying to explain exactly how they intend to distinguish the “good” charter schools from the “bad” ones better than parents can.  But take comfort, their political ineptitude matches their technocratic inclinations so that I expect they will burn through their $200 million without successfully installing and maintaining any multi-sector portfolio management systems. So children will be safe from their falsely-guided superior judgement.

It’s Time for “The Higgy”

March 31, 2019

William Higginbotham

It is time once gain to solicit nominations for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  Below I reproduce portions of the first announcement of “The Higgy” in 2012, so you have an understanding of the historic significance and criteria for this dishonor.


As someone who was recognized in 2006 as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, I know a lot about the importance of awards highlighting people of significant accomplishment.  Here on JPGB we have the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, but I’ve noticed that “The Al” only recognizes people of positive accomplishment.  As Time Magazine has understood in naming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini as Persons of the Year, accomplishments can be negative as well as positive.

(Then again, Time has also recognized some amazing individuals as Person of the Year, including Endangered Earth, The Computer, Twenty-Five and Under, and The Peacemakers, so I’m not sure we should be paying so much attention to what a soon-to-be-defunct magazine does.  But that’s a topic for another day when we want to talk about how schools are more likely to be named after manatees than George Washington.)

Where were we?  Oh yes.  It is important to recognize negative as well as positive accomplishment.  So I introduce “The Higgy,” an award named after William Higinbotham, as the mirror award to our well-established “Al.”

Just as Al Copeland was not without serious flaws as a person, William Higinbotham was not without his virtues.  Higinbotham did, after all  develop the first video game.  But Higinbotham dismissed the importance of that accomplishment and instead chose to be an arrogant jerk by claiming that his true accomplishment was in helping found the Federation of American Scientists and working for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.  I highly doubt that the Federation or Higinbotham did a single thing that actually advanced nonproliferation, but they sure were smug about it…

I suspect that Al Copeland, by contrast, understood that he was a royal jerk.  And he also understood that developing a chain of spicy chicken restaurants really does improve the human condition.  Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition.

So, “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

We will invite nominations for “The Higgy” in late March and will announce the winner, appropriately enough, on April 15.  Thanks to Greg for his suggestions in developing “The Higgy.”