Bring out your Dead!

March 28, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Next has a new forum out titled “Is Test-Based Accountability Dead?“that includes Kevin Huffman, Morgan Polikoff and our very own Jay Greene. The crux of the argument (although all the authors make points worthy of consideration) in my view lies between Greene’s political analysis of the situation (school folks + disenchanted parents >> technocrats) and Huffman’s acknowledgement of the difficulties but enduring belief that the old system worked and could yet work if only…

This is where leadership must come into play. It is imperative that governors, state chiefs of education, and other local leaders vocally advocate for the potent change shaper of accountability and convince the public of that power. I am optimistic that state education leaders are availing themselves of the chance to draft stronger, multifaceted measurement systems under ESSA. If voters and parents get behind these systems, and we implement them with fidelity, we will be able to use test results—and other measures—to dramatically improve our public schools.

In my mind this statement recalls the scene in Henry V when the Battle of Agincourt turns decisively against the French. The French noble Orleans exclaims:

We are enough yet living in the field
To smother up the English in our throngs,
If any order might be thought upon.
Go see the play if you need a refresher on how that plan works out for the French. The Huffman piece merits careful examination regardless, as it is actually a good example of how K-12 policy discussions actually occur. Huffman presents evidence on national NAEP scores and attributes a positive trend to testing. Huffman then makes the case that test based accountability systems especially drove improvement in the District of Columbia and Tennessee. Ergo test based systems can drive public school improvement, therefore we must summon up the blood and make them work.

Huffman did not invent this type of reasoning. In the beginning there was Massachusetts-and a nation that strangely lacked curiosity about large package of reforms passed in 1993-It was the testing! Next came North Carolina and Texas to justify NCLB. And then Finland (?!?) and then Florida. Huffman proposes to add DC and Tennessee to the list to make the case for test based improvement strategies “I’m not dead yet!”

Properly trained social scientists of course will pull their hair out and mutter “wacky sassafras!” at such violence being done to the proper ascribing of causality. Given that this is how such conversations take place, we can at a minimum look under the hood of such claims-do they square with more rigorous empirical evidence? Has there been any effort made to explore alternative explanations or look at subgroup trends? Usually not-most often this is “tell me a story and let’s run with it!” So let’s turn some (minimal) attention towards the DC and Tennessee examples.

As has been discussed previously here at Jayblog, DC represents a complex case involving multiple powerful factors other than test based accountability- including massive gentrification and a powerful amount of parental choice. The only positive trend above and beyond the national average for low-income children in DC locates itself in the charter sector. Ergo it is hard to make the case that DC’s testing system is doing something especially impressive in my book.

So let’s consider Tennessee, and a non-tested area of Science under the theory that character is about what you do when you think no one is looking:


Tennessee fares quite well in progress on NAEP Science. Tennessee also scored near the top on 4th to 8th grade Math and Reading cohort gains between 2011 and 2015. Unlike DC, neither a massive dose of gentrification or parental choice has yet made it to Tennessee, so let’s acknowledge that Tennessee students have displayed positive gains on the NAEP, including in areas outside of accountability testing. Tennessee seems to be a case worthy of examination (i.e. closer examination than I can provide in my pajamas) but let’s assume for the moment that Huffman is correct that the test based policies have been driving Tennessee improvement. What then?

Greene’s constituency politics analysis still likely prevails in the medium term. The lack of a “test my child more!” constituency added to the overt hostility of public school employees almost certainly places this strategy on borrowed time. Now if someone made me the Baron of Arizona and the federal government sent down a diktat that we were going to do testings and ratings, I would happily study what TN did and consider imposing it. “You have to have some kind of tests and ratings, why not ones that seem to have driven improvements?” would be a phrase likely to fall from Baron von Arizona’s lips. We however do not live in an imperial system, but rather in a democracy. This makes securing the consent of the governed necessary. Even in an imperial system, the peasants will stage frequent uprisings if and when they are sufficiently motivated.

The title of the Ed Next forum pretty much answers its own question. Whether or not such improvement strategies are “dead” we have reason to suspect have practical limits and constraints and that we have likely hit the ceiling.





The Facts about School Choice and Segregation

March 23, 2017

A Century Foundation researcher searching for evidence.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

ICYMI, our JPG blogger buddy Greg Forster has a new piece up at Education Next debunking a report from the Century Foundation that claims — based on mere conjecture and an ostrich-like ability to bury one’s head in the sand regarding the research — that school choice supposedly increases ethnic segregation.

The Century Foundation has published a report by Halley Potter that claims private school choice will increase ethnic segregation in schools. Although the text of the report constantly invokes words like “evidence,” “studies” and “data,” its conclusions are actually defended almost entirely by appeal to a lengthy recitation of hypothetical, ideological speculation. The report’s actual engagement with empirical research is as scanty as it is misleading. A real review of the evidence shows that private school choice has never been found to increase segregation and often seems to have provided a more integrated classroom experience.

There are a number of serious methodological challenges involved in empirical research on how education policies affect ethnic segregation. I wrote about them at some length in a report for EdChoice a while back. For example, some data don’t permit causal conclusions; some methods of comparison are unfair because they compare elementary grades to secondary grades inappropriately. Reviewing all of the empirical research on school choice last year, I found that 10 studies had been conducted that examine the relationship between school choice and ethnic segregation in some respect. Some are causal, some descriptive; all shed some light on the question. Nine of those studies found that school choice provided a more integrated classroom experience, one found no visible difference, and no empirical study had ever found that a school choice program made ethnic segregation worse.

That is the empirical evidence. Nine out of the 10 studies that have been conducted report positive findings on the actual, real-world impact of school choice programs when it comes to ethnic segregation.

The Century Foundation report mostly ignores the evidence, giving a distorted take on just two of the empirical studies on the effects of school choice on segregation. As Greg notes:

If you dig very, very deep into the report, you do eventually find a discussion of empirical studies. But this doesn’t mean the report gets much better, for Potter examines only two of the 10 studies that exist – and she has described them in a misleading way.

Looking at longitudinal studies in Milwaukee and Louisiana, she describes them in a way that will leave the impression that the results were negative for school choice: “In both cases, programs were used primarily by black students and generally did not exacerbate segregation in public schools; however, students using vouchers did not gain access to integrated private schools, and segregation in private schools actually increased.”

Now, even that misleading description would be enough to call into question the huge mountain of hypothetical, ideological speculation that occupies the overwhelming majority of Potter’s report. However, a more precise description of these two studies would look even worse for Potter, because it would look good for school choice.

The Milwaukee study found the voucher program made no visible difference to segregation, at least during the period under observation. It is the only such study ever to find no visible difference. Other studies in Milwaukee using different methods have found more encouraging results, though because of methodological restrictions, none of these studies can be considered a final word. The longitudinal study’s null finding is not as encouraging as a positive finding would have been, but the nightmare world of increasing school segregation promised by Potter’s lengthy speculations apparently did not come to pass in Milwaukee.

As usual with Greg’s work, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sadly, the Atlantic ran an entirely uncritical piece parroting the Century Foundation’s “findings.” I’ve reached out to both the Atlantic and the Century Foundation yesterday–and again today–to share with them all the evidence that they ignored, but they have thus far continued to ignore both me and the evidence. I’ll update you if that changes.

See You at the Crossroads

March 13, 2017


(Guest Post by Lindsey Burke)

Tulane’s Doug Harris found himself at a crossroads in the Austin American Statesman earlier this week, writing:

The school-reform movement stands at a crossroads. One camp wants unfettered free markets, while charter school leaders and others want to offer families choice and preserve meaningful oversight and accountability.

We’re certainly at a crossroads, but road signs look very different from where I stand. I see one road that leads to parents empowered to choose education options that work for their children, with schools that are held directly accountable to those parents, and another road (perhaps it winds through New Orleans) that puts up regulatory barriers on school choice options and creates no genuine accountability to speak of.

Who Knows Best? Families vs. Bureaucrats

Harris argues in the Statesman that “free markets don’t make sense for schools” because “families expect schools to do a lot of things for their children — teach academic skills, social manners and good values — most of which families don’t have good information about.”

But is it true that families don’t have good information about these facets of schooling? Or, to put it differently, that the government is in a better position to evaluate and make decisions about these difficult-to-quantify outcomes?

Markets produce voluminous information about goods and services that answer the questions consumers are actually asking about a particular product. The oft-referenced ESA Yahoo message board that families in Arizona established after the introduction of the education savings account option in 2011 is a good example.

Current and potential Empowerment Scholarship Account families of Arizona meet here and share ideas and resources for how to best acquire, keep and utilize the funding they need for their child’s individual education.

This is an informal, unaffiliated parent information group where we hope to share ideas, questions and information with each other as we make exiting, individual educational decisions for our special needs, military, D/F school, foster/adoptive children and grandchildren.

Although we list the official ESA website and may share many resources here, we are an informal group of parents and grandparents and are unaffiliated with any formal government or private organization.

As Julie Trivitt and Patrick Wolf have identified in their work on school branding, Catholic schools created a ‘corporate brand’ that signals to parents engaged in the school selection process that their schools provide a religious education and academic quality. This type of branding provides informative shortcuts for parents as they work to choose a school that meets the needs of their child. And critically, when a brand fails to accurately reflect a school’s attributes or quality, inaccurate brands become “an instigator of programmatic attrition.”

Not only do parents have the most intimate perspective on the needs of their own children, but they also tend to be savvy consumers of education services and products, which is why parents leave a provider when brand promises are not met. Choice increases parental involvement, introduces parent-driven decision making, and produces consumer information that is far more detailed (and actionable) than accountability measures in place in a government-run K-12 education system.

By contrast, district schools provide answers to how students perform (the answer usually being, not too well), using blunt measures largely based on state and national tests, and do little if anything to hold those in charge accountable for underperformance. As Matt Ladner has demonstrated, although just three in 10 students in eighth grade in Texas public schools are proficient in reading, 92.5 percent of school districts received a “met standard” designation, with just 6.5 percent of districts receiving a “needs improvement” label. Who’s being held accountable there?

Yet in a market – say, a robust ESA market – consumers not only have more useful information available to make informed choices that meet the needs of their children, they can hold providers to account for not meeting promises. As Jason Bedrick has noted, “real accountability means being directly accountable to those who bear the consequences of your performance.”

Measuring Quality: But By Whose Measure?

Harris also goes on to question the wisdom of choice without the omnipotent hand of the government regulating accountability. “Even if free markets did work well,” he says, “it would be reasonable for policymakers to ask for some measurable results. It’s hard to think of another case where government writes checks to private organizations without checking whether taxpayers are getting anything for their money.”

First, ESA and other education choice funds do not go to “organizations.” Funds go to families, not schools. Schools certainly benefit, by only by way of parents taking their funds to schools that fulfill what they’re looking for. Likewise, food stamps are for the hungry, not grocery stores; Section 8 housing vouchers are for those who need shelter, and are not subsidies designed to prop up the apartment building industry.

Second, the government regularly writes checks to individuals for use at a variety of organizations without requiring either those individuals or organizations to meet certain government-imposed metrics. Grocery stores accepting food stamps aren’t held to higher standards than those than don’t, nor are food stamp recipients required to abide by any dietary guidelines or limited to a certain caloric intake. Contra Harris, this approach is the norm for nearly every entitlement and welfare program, including Social Security, SNAP, WIC, Section 8, and so on. As Jay has noted, the feds aren’t checking on grandma to see that she spent her social security money on vegetables or rent.

This is the norm in education policy as well. Pell grants to colleges require accreditation, but that is far from a measure of academic quality. Colleges that accept Pell grants are not required to administer national tests or any tests at all. Nor are they required to meet government-imposed benchmarks for graduation rates or any other quantifiable measures, let alone to harder-to-quantify ones like civic values or noncognitive skills.

Third, and more germane to the choice conversation, is Harris’s notion that government is needed to ensure accountability. Not only are government regulations in education a far inferior form of accountability than market driven mechanisms, but they can actually have the inverse effect of what was intended by regulation-hawks. And coming from Louisiana himself, where the high-regulation model is in place (requiring private schools accepting students on a voucher to take the state test and punishing “underperformers” by kicking schools that parents have chosen out of the options pool), Harris should acknowledge that the so-called accountability regulations have not lived up to their proponents’ promises and may have had the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

Heavy-handed regulations (a state testing mandate, among others) have discouraged the vast majority of private schools from participating, while likely encouraging lower performers (as indicated by student attrition from those schools prior to entering the voucher program) to join the LSP, willing to incur the regulations in order to secure a new funding stream.

Fairness: Market Mote and Government Beam

Harris then goes on to argue that a free market in education wouldn’t be fair:

In the average free market, wealthier people get higher quality items while low-income families get the lowest. That might be tolerated when we are talking about buying breakfast cereal at the grocery store — but not when we are talking about schools.

To reiterate the argument choice proponents have been making ad nauseam since 1955, this is exactly the system that is currently in place. Wealthier families can currently pay for private options that are higher quality or meet their needs better than their assigned public school, or can purchase a home in a district that reflects their education preferences.

One concern Harris voices that is a valid discussion to have is whether vouchers could create a price floor for tuition prices. This is another reason why ESAs have advantages over traditional modes of school choice. The ability of parents to roll over unused funds year-to-year and to direct dollars to multiple services and products and providers mitigates this issue to a large degree. But that’s hard to see if you refuse to acknowledge that ESAs are functionally different than vouchers.

At the Crossroads: Assessing the Evidence

Harris concludes his op-ed with one last argument about what the research supposedly says:

The research lines up with what basic economics predicts. Across many studies, students using vouchers end up with lower achievement levels than those in traditional public schools. The effects have been especially bad in states like Louisiana and Ohio, where voucher programs are most similar to Senate Bill 3.

Actually, the school choice literature shows an excellent track record, that the government regulatory approach should be envious of. There have been 15 gold-standard, random-assignment evaluations of private school choice programs. Ten of those found statistically significant increases in academic outcomes, three found no difference, and two were negative. Those two negative evaluations were both from Louisiana, and were likely due to the uniquely prescriptive regulatory environment in Harris’s Pelican State.

Harris is indeed right that the school reform movement stands at a crossroads: we can either overregulate choice in a way that limits participation and basically replicates the public system, or we can allow choice and innovation to flourish by trusting families. If we want something different, it’s time to take the road less traveled.

Andy Smarick on K-12 Paradigm Shift

March 13, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Smarick has a new paper out from AEI discussing Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift framework and the current context of American K-12. Everything he describes is very apparent in the discussion of K-12 out here in the Cactus Patch, especially the discussion about “Incommensurability.” Smarick describes the process by which adherents of the old and new paradigms stop making sense to each other:

According to Structure, the perspectives of adherents of the new paradigm are, in many respects, permanently and irrevocably incompatible with those of their predecessors. It is not just that the paradigms take different positions on particular issues; it is that they ask fundamentally different questions, look for different types of answers, and prioritize different things. Kuhn described it as talking past one another and “practic[ing] their trades in different worlds.

Just yesterday an unsigned editorial in the Arizona Republic read:

This year’s ESA budget is about $40 million according to the Arizona Department of Education. That is more than the state provided to fix things like lead-laced water and mercury in public schools.

In the same edition, Jeb Bush wrote a guest editorial:

ESAs will not cause a mass exodus from public schools. Instead the result will be improved public schools. An enterprise that can take its customers for granted behaves much differently than one that risks losing them.

In the Republic’s paradigm the state is responsible for flooring installed in some district campuses in the 1960s and 1970s and should cease giving students further choices until everything is all clear in district land. Obviously this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but the billions in funding that state taxpayers gave districts every year can be used on facilities, not just any additional emergency assistance. Moreover, the state was going to fund the ESA kids whether they went into the ESA program or not, and in fact the majority of them are special needs children, and the consistent claim of the districts have been that they must divert local funds for each child. It’s not like the budget for the ESA program in other words prevents districts and the state from addressing mercury-vapor inducing flooring in other words.

Under Governor Bush’s paradigm, the districts will continue to improve as long as parents have the ability to vote with their feet-whether it is to get away from toxic mercury vapors or a toxic academic or cultural climate etc.

And so it goes…


Chag Purim Sameach

March 13, 2017

For those recovering from yesterday’s Purim celebration and for those who don’t know what they missed, here are some great Purim costumes:

Israeli school students dress up in costumes at the Hanisuii school in Jerusalem on March 10, 2017, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

אליאל הילל - העמוד הרשמי


Image result for purim facebook twitter costumes

Image result for spiderman at the kotel

Image result for dog purim costume

Image result for purim costumes

Image result for purim photos

The All-Too-Familiar Experience of a Pundit with a Home Office

March 10, 2017

Park Savings Accounts – An idea whose time has come

March 9, 2017

(Guest post by Adam Peshek)

I saw this flyer the other day by a group called Iowans for Public Education and it just made sense. We need to create Park Savings Accounts (PSAs) in Iowa!

As you know, back in 2018 the voters of Iowa decided to make summer camp compulsory. And for good reason. Social scientists from across the state and nation told us of the summer Brain Drain – that time between May and late August when our children lose the knowledge they gained during the school year.

And all because of an outdated notion of “summer break,” which we all know was a centuries-old holdover from farming days. As parents went off to work in June, the unsupervised children they left were running amok – getting into trouble, getting hurt, running with the wrong crowds, and using their free time to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Some kids even start listening to rock and roll music.

The social costs were skyrocketing. Luckily, Iowans decided to fix this problem by amending the state constitution to create universal summer camps for all:

The safety and well-being of students is of paramount interest to all citizens of this state. Therefore, the state shall make adequate provision for summer camps for all children within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made in a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free summer camps in local parks across the state.

Instead of funding individual students to pay for summer camps of their choice, tens of thousands of Local Park Agencies (LPAs) were created to manage the program. Large maps were taken out to draw circles around parks to determine which residences were to be zoned for which parks.

Beating Brain Drain, making good citizens, and preparing children for the challenges of the future is complicated work and you need qualified adults to do it. So, we created the park ranger licensing program to ensure the best quality adults were left with our children.

Money needed to pay for all of this is raised through state and local taxes and the average student gets $3,000 in services spent on them each summer. An LPA with 3,000 students in it would have a summer budget of at least $9 million. (The cost for constructing parks is not included in this amount.)

But the goal wasn’t to just build parks that people could choose to come if and when they wanted! We all agreed that summer camps should be compulsory. But we also admitted that requiring all students to go to summer camp at one locally-zoned public park is downright Orwellian! So, parents are given two other options.

The first option is called home camping, which allows parents to provide summer camp for their children as long as they submit documentation to the LPA detailing what activities they plan to provide. This is only an option for parents who can be home during the summer – and have the patience to do it. Despite being fairly commonplace in the 20th Century, home campers soon became seen as a group of outsiders. I mean, how weird is it do to summer camp in your house?! What about socialization? What about proper standardized services approved by the experts in the state capital? It’s just plain weird.

The other option is for parents to pay for private summer camp. These used to be much more prevalent in the U.S. before states started passing laws to provide free summer camp for every student in every neighborhood across the country. Those that remain mostly fill a niche: providing religiously-oriented programming, catering to wealthy parents, or just providing an option for an unsatisfactory local park.

No one ever envisioned a need for another option. But after a few years, parents started to make decisions about buying houses near the best public parks, and home prices became correlated with the quality of a local park. Parents began paying $300,000 for a home in one part of town, even though the exact same home would be worth no more than $100,000 in another part. Young couples with small children began the trend of moving out of cities to the suburbs to be able to afford a quality local park.

But when you have to send your child to the park you live closest to, as a parent you’re going to do what it takes to get them into the best. Let’s face it – some parks are better than others. Some parks have discipline problems, disruptive children, or seem like embodiments of the summer camp movies we grew up with in the 1990s. A lot of public parks are great, but for whatever reason they were not fitting the interests or needs for each individual child zoned to attend them. And why would we expect this setup to produce this outcome?

Even if you could, local park managers don’t actually have a budget or the ability to choose their staff, they’re assigned by the LPA. Workplace rules are written by the LPA, with the help of the local park rangers union. These rules dictate everything from the structure of the day, the exact number of hours rangers are expected to work, and other prohibitions that keep managers from being able to change the structure of the day to fit what is needed. Rangers get paid based on how long they’ve worked for the park service, their level of education, and a few other variables such as cost of living.

The best park rangers have no interest being assigned to the most difficult parks. Why would they? The difficulty of the job isn’t factored into the set salary schedule. Even the most idealistic young rangers, who are dedicated to taking the tough roles out of a sense of purpose, are chewed up and spit out by the system. The institutional rangers don’t like them and the unions question their motivations.

Despite some positive benefits for the billions and billions spent, the compulsory summer camp program is still falling short on achieving the goal of keeping children safe and educated through June and July.

After a while, some of us looked around and thought, “why does it have to be this way?” Why are parents paying 200% more for a house just because of the quality of its zoned park? A lot of people actually like living in cities and don’t like the idea of having to move to ‘burbs just to give their kid a shot. Why are low-income families relegated to parks that seem antithetical to the mission of compulsory summer camp? It’s not like they can afford to move to Pleasantville. Why does the government have to be the only one involved with providing services?

People seem to recall a time when there were ways of dealing with this without the LPA. Why can’t students take the money that would have been spent on them in their local parks to one of those private summer camps? Would there be more of them if this was an option? Would they be cheaper?

I mean, there are summer camps in ritzy country clubs that provide the same services for less money!

This is why we should support lawmakers in their effort to create Park Savings Accounts. PSAs would allow you to get just the state share of what your local park would spend on your child. You could use this to pay for private summer camp and other summer enrichment alternatives. If you like your local park, nothing will change for you! In fact, since PSAs do not touch local funds, public parks will have more money per student.

Are PSAs going to fix everything wrong with our compulsory summer camp system? No, and we shouldn’t claim that it will. But it might do something very beneficial to the 4% of 5% of kids who need something different.