Meanwhile MOOCs continue to grow and evolve…

January 18, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Economist provides a current state of play for the MOOC space, Georgia Tech announces a new ultra-low cost Masters Degree in analytics, and EdX has a summary of who uses their courses, earns credentials etc.

Who’s a Little Massachusetts Charter School Fear Demon?

January 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So in a delightful episode of the television series classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Scooby Gang discovers that the demon terror du jour is approximately six inches tall. The demon babbles on about his fearsome power as the Dark Lord of Nightmares, only to have classy Giles admonish the good guys for taunting the boastful mini-monster in preference to a quick dispatching and well deserved stomp.

So…for some reason this scene came to mind when I read a letter that the Massachusetts Charter School Association sent to Elizabeth Warren opposing the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.

Ok calm down-I know you have a lot of questions: Yes the same charter school association that helped burn through tens of millions of other people’s money only to lose decisively on a ballot measure to allow 12 new charters a year to open in the state. The same association whose sector is too small to meet the minimum reporting requirements in either Massachusetts or even Boston. Yes the same Elizabeth Warren that turned on them when they went to the ballot.

Well then, what do the wee-tiny Dark Lords of the Bay State’s safely contained charter sector have to say for themselves?

By all independent accounts, Massachusetts has the best charter school system in the country. We are providing high quality public school choices for parents across our state. Our urban schools are serving the highest need children in Massachusetts, and are producing results that have researchers double-checking their math. These gains held across all demographic groups, including African American, Latino, and children living in poverty.

(… according-six-year-study/hCpVGMeEQvNODUvB6bXhcK/story.html)

The cornerstone of the Massachusetts charter public school system is accountability. The process of obtaining and keeping a charter is deliberately difficult. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is the sole authorizer and historically has approved only one out of every five applications. Once approved, each charter school must submit to annual financial audits by independent auditors and annual performance reviews by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Every five years, each charter must be renewed after a process as rigorous as the initial application process. For-profit charter schools are prohibited by Massachusetts law.

Tremble before their fearsome technocratic awesomeness or they will DESTROY YOU!

Okay, so here is a new independent evaluation for you- MA charters are apparently effective for many of the small number of kids who will ever have the chance to attend them. That’s wonderful, but outside of that one can’t help but notice that very few people in MA, including Senator Warren, seemed overly impressed with either their bureaucratic compliance or test scores during the initiative. I can’t say I’m overly impressed with a sector that has approximately zero prospects for growth.

Moreover, if you find yourself stalemated at the legislature and crushed at the ballot box, does the scroll inside the “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” box say “Write a pompous letter to someone who was already a ‘no’ denouncing someone who supports your cause?” Let’s ask the 8-Ball whether it would be good to follow that advice:

Oh and by the way, the independent evaluations referenced in the letter that like Boston charters also like Detroit. As Max Eden noted:

The 2013 study of Michigan charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that “charter students in Detroit gain over three months per year more than their counterparts at traditional public schools.” A 2015 CREDO study of 41 major cities concluded that Boston, Newark, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, “provide essential examples of school-level and system-level commitments to quality that can serve as models to other communities.

Some of these charter sectors-like Detroit btw- delightfully have the opportunity to grow and serve more students. Others apparently prefer to accept their containment and babble about their fearsome powers. Somehow it is not hard to imagine why Massachusetts voters administered a ballot box stomp.


The Battle for Room 314

January 13, 2017

(Guest Post By Jonathan Butcher)

Are American classrooms improving? After a century of government and non-government interventions, we hope so. But we’ll need to look someplace other than Ed Boland’s The Battle for Room 314. A visitor to earth who had never seen a school before might be unable to distinguish between demilitarized zones and Boland’s class. Drugs, guns, obscene speech and behavior—imagine if Quentin Tarantino rewrote the script for Dangerous Minds.

We learn near the end of Room 314 that Boland’s school, Union Street, ranked in the bottom five percent of New York’s schools, so his class is not representative of the U.S. We hope things would have improved since other hard-luck education stories like Up the Down Staircase and the Morgan Freeman film Lean on Me, these works now some 60 and 30 years old, respectively. Room 314 forces us to look for good news elsewhere, because it’s not found at Union Street.

Room 314 is a memoir, not a policy guide, even though Boland offers recommendations in the book’s conclusion. The author is a 40-something New Yorker who leaves his successful career in fundraising to teach in a New York City public school. He gives an account of his year spent trying to make sense of American teenagers with absent or unstable parents. Boland leaves little to the imagination and tells the story with the same salty language that his students use in class. Be warned, it’s brutal and explicit storytelling at times.

Because this is a book about public schools, Boland’s personal story cannot help but expose familiar policy problems. Halfway through the school year, Boland and his fellow ninth grade teachers plan to reconfigure the classrooms to break up the most disruptive students. The teachers agree to teach an extra period.

Enter the union. The representative says, “If management sees that teachers are willing to work more without more compensation, they’ll hold that against us during the next round of negotiations… We have to adhere to the contract strictly or the whole thing falls apart.” Boland says his class has already fallen apart.

The demoralizing union tactics are not lost on him. In his suggestions for system-wide improvement, he says:

“In simplest terms, unions must be more willing to work with the administration so they can fire the least effective teachers; change lockstep compensation; reconsider evaluation, seniority, and tenure; and create incentives to put the best teachers in the neediest schools.”

Still, he understands his students’ obstacles are more than he can overcome in class. He says that one of his students wants to attend Columbia University after participating in a model United Nations competition on campus: “I didn’t like knowing that Solomon’s fate was already pretty-well sealed by his ethnic surname, his lousy zip code, and his mother’s measly income.”

The conflicting ideas in Room 314 are whether Boland was unprepared or his students had too many challenges at home or the school somehow failed them all. An NPR review of Room 314 written by a teacher says, “Had Boland stuck around another year or two…he might have written his story quite differently.” Boland says Union Street was under new leadership shortly after he left, and it was unclear how many students were to repeat a grade—so there are no guarantees. The NPR reviewer is critical of Boland’s lesson planning and inability to connect with his students. Fordham’s Robert Pondiscio (who worked for Boland at a non-profit) is less critical of Boland and blames inadequate teacher preparation programs for those headed to inner-city schools.

Regardless, Boland deserves credit for taking a year and all the compassion he could muster to protect, console, and, at times, even teach a frightening group of teenagers. His criticism of the union is noted, but his other calls to action like different integration laws and more funding fall flat. There is not enough taxpayer money in all of Albany (or Washington) to solve Room 314’s problems.

“Edu-Scholar” Ranking Essay

January 6, 2017

(Guest post by Robert Costrell)

Background:   The essay below was written by invitation for Education Week, to be published along with other commentaries, in conjunction with the release of Rick Hess’ annual “edu-scholar” rankings this month.   The invitation was to respond to the prompt below.  Ed Week accepted the essay for publication, but then pulled it when I declined to submit to their extensive requested revisions.

Ed Week’s Prompt:  “It’s no great secret that the American professoriate tilts to the left, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. The disjuncture between the academic mainstream and a large swath of the American public has been especially evident during this year’s heated presidential campaign and in the course of the Trump transition. What should public-minded academics make of this? Is it a problem if academic sentiment generally aligns with one side of the political spectrum? Does it create challenges for the academy or limit the ability of academics to offer policy ideas or engage in a more robust public debate? What, if anything, should publicly-engaged academics try to do about any of this?”

My Essay:

Education Policy Scholarship a Bright Spot in a Depressing Political and Academic Era

In a depressing era for politics, policy, and academia, our little field of education policy scholarship stands as a bright spot – for now, at least.  The current presidential transition actually illustrates the point.  Unlike other nominations, the debate over Betsy DeVos has been well informed by policy scholars, regarding Michigan’s charter schools, a central element of Ms. DeVos’ record.  Our colleagues have debated what the evidence says or does not say and how the policy choices in Michigan may or may not have worked.  Yes, some political posturing has crept into that debate, even among our public scholars, but compared to what we have seen during and beyond the long presidential campaign, and over many decades in academia, our field’s contribution to this current episode is not bad.

It was not always thus.  Thirty years ago, education policy scholarship was a backwater.  With some notable exceptions, it was non-disciplinary, as opposed to inter-disciplinary.  Since then, high-caliber economists, political scientists, legal scholars, and others have brought their disciplines into a weak field and, on the whole, have strengthened it. Consider the transformation of our main professional organization, the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP).  AEFP founded an impressive new journal (Education Finance and Policy, MIT Press) and our annual conferences feature growing numbers of well-trained, bright young scholars, interacting with policy practitioners.  Yes, political predispositions often lurk beneath the surface, and sometimes erupt, but in general they are well-contained.  By contrast, just look at those fields – including some major ones – where annual conferences are hijacked by destructive elements seeking to academically boycott their colleagues from Israel.  That kind of thing does not happen at AEFP.

Looking more broadly to the question posed above, regarding the current impact of academia’s leftward tilt, there are definitely reasons for concern.  Ideally, personal political convictions of the faculty should not matter, if we all adhered to the historical norm for the academic temperament, checking our political, religious, and other personal passions at the university door.  But over the nearly four decades since I entered the professoriate, that norm has been increasingly abandoned.  Far too many of our colleagues want our academic freedom, but not the “corresponding duties” of scholarly restraint emphasized by the AAUP a century ago.  Moreover, many universities now face student activists born and bred in this environment, who exacerbate matters by demanding ever-more politicized compliance on our part with specified stances and speech, abetted in too many cases by pusillanimous administrators.

A politically lop-sided professoriate will obviously have reduced influence on public policy when its side is out of power.  Yes, there is a role for the loyal scholarly opposition.  Indeed, historically Democratic and Republican scholars would simply switch places, between government and academia, when elections so determined.  But, what now?  Where are Republican state governments to turn for academic policy expertise after their dramatic ascendancy across the country since 2009?  Moreover, when a State House switches power again, where will the few Republican academics who served those administrations find an academic home, from which to provide their loyal scholarly opposition?

This is not only a matter of the service we can provide our governments, but conversely, the immense benefit we can derive as scholars from a stint of public service.  I speak from personal experience of the insights – and humility – acquired during seven years of serving three Republican governors in Massachusetts facing veto-proof Democratic legislatures.  Ironically, I found far more political tolerance and dialogue in that divided State House than in the academic environment from which I had come at the University of Massachusetts.

The recent presidential vote – populist in result – suggests the problems in academia may run deeper than a simple lack of balance between right and left.  I agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks and the Brookings Institutions’ William Galston, writing in the Wall Street Journal, that our national problem has been the collapse of the broad center.   If we are to have political identifications in academia (not my first-best solution), we should try to restore the presence of and dialogue between the center-right and center-left.

As for education policy scholarship, to stay relevant, we should learn from the disastrous examples in so many other parts of academia.   We should resist the encroachment of identity politics, which has proven so corrosive, both to academia and the comity of our body politic.   We should also resist the hubris to which policy scholars can succumb.  When a publicly-engaged scholar like MIT economist Jonathan Gruber is repeatedly caught on video bragging that he put one over on the “stupid” American public in his design features for Obamacare, should we be surprised when large swaths of that public vote against the whole idea of policy expertise?

Let us borrow Benjamin Franklin’s famous warning after the Constitutional Convention, much quoted in the aftermath of our recent election.  We in education policy scholarship have a good field, “if we can keep it.”


Robert Costrell is professor of education reform and economics at the University of Arkansas.  He served MA Governors Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney, 1999-2006, as policy research director, chief economist, and education advisor.

NYT Misleads About School Choice Yet Again

January 1, 2017


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Once again, the editors at the New York Times have allowed their bias against school choice to get in the way of reporting facts.

On Friday, the NYT ran a blog by Professor Susan Dynarski with the incredibly misleading headline (which, in fairness, she likely didn’t write): “Free Market for Education? Economists Generally Don’t Buy It.

Based on that description, you might think that a survey of economists found that most economists think a market in education wouldn’t work, or at least that there were more economists who thought it wouldn’t work than thought it would. Well, not quite. Dynarski writes:

But economists are far less optimistic about what an unfettered market can achieve in education. Only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice.

Follow the link to the 2011 IGM survey and you’ll find that 36% of surveyed economists agreed that school choice programs would be beneficial–but only 19% disagreed and 37% expressed uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2016-12-31 at 10.37.19 PM.png

Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog writes:

A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.”

By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. Heck, it more than implies it – its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher. […]

I think this is really poor journalistic practice and implies the opinion of the nation’s economists to be the opposite of what it really is. I hope the Times prints a correction.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Oddly, Dynarski did not include the results from the more recent 2012 IGM survey, in which the level of support for school choice was higher (44%) and opposition was lower (5%), a nearly 9:1 ratio of support to opposition. When weighted for confidence, 54% thought school choice was beneficial only 6% disagreed.

Screen Shot 2016-12-31 at 10.40.25 PM.png

We should give Professor Dynarski the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t know about the more recent results (though they pop right up on Google and the IGM search feature), but the NYT deserves no such benefit for its continuing pattern of misleading readers about the evidence for school choice.

Can a Market in Education Work?

December 16, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

At the risk of arousing Greg’s ire, I’d like to talk about the market for education.

In a recent interview, Professor Joshua Goodman of Harvard thoughtfully expressed skepticism that markets could improve quality in education. Whereas I’ve found other attempts to make the “education is different!” argument to be unpersuasive, Goodman makes a few solid points that choice advocates would do well to consider:

I became an economist in part because of Milton Friedman’s argument that vouchers could improve schooling through market forces. At the time, this argument struck me as both revolutionary and obviously right. Competition improves supermarkets, restaurants — why shouldn’t this model apply to schools? It seemed to me that anyone who denied this idea didn’t understand basic economics.

But the more I read, the more I realized that the empirical evidence for choice and market forces improving educational outcomes is thin at best. I found that disappointing and also puzzling, and I have spent some time thinking about why that theory doesn’t match current reality.

Regarding the evidence, it’s certainly true that none of the catastrophes that school choice critics have predicted have come true. But neither have the policies produced the transformative changes that supporters had promised. Instead, we’ve had a consistent batch of random-assignment studies finding positive but relatively small effects (setting aside the high-regulation disaster in Louisiana). The effects tend to be larger for minorities, parents are much happier, and they cost less per pupil, so I think they’re still worth pursuing even on purely consequentialist grounds, but school choice programs have not been transformative. Why not? Goodman continues:

Here’s what I think the biggest problem in thinking of schools as a classical market. Econ 101 models assume consumers observe product quality. But schools are complicated goods, and quality, particularly a school’s long-run quality, is hard to judge for many parents. It takes a lot of time to figure out whether this school and these teachers are serving my child well. Unlike restaurants or supermarkets, where quality can be judged at the moment of the purchase, school quality reveals itself later. […]

Observing school quality is quite costly, and in many settings there is no credible way to inform future students about the quality of education they are getting. The for-profit college sector is a perfect example of this. Market forces fail to discipline for-profit colleges because for an individual student there’s no repeated game here. Students enroll and only much later realize lousy labor market outcomes. In particular, that students must enroll for a while to see long-run outcomes limits the power of the market to provide discipline. The time it takes to learn that a school is low quality damages the student, and that student’s information may not be transmissible to other students in a systematic or credible way.

Goodman concludes that he does believe “schools could use a bit of market pressure to counteract inertia” because district “monopolies clearly allow many schools to coast on their current trajectories without trying new approaches or investing more effort,” but he is “much more skeptical now than I was before that market forces are some sort of panacea, as they appear to be in some industries.” In the end, he thinks there will “always be a need for public accountability, if only to lower information costs to parents and students.”

I agree with much of this analysis. As I wrote at EdNext today:

There is no panacea. There is no perfect information just as there are no perfect bureaucrats or, for that matter, perfect parents. The question before us is how to design a system with imperfect people and imperfect information that will come as close as possible to providing every child with access to a high-quality education.

Getting parents the information they need to make good decisions is indeed a challenge. As Goodman notes, it is harder to identify a quality education than it is to identify a good meal or a good car. There is a great degree of subjectivity and the payoff is usually far in the future.

The question then becomes what sort of institutions are better equipped to address this challenge. As Lindsey Burke and I argue in a new report published by the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the technocratic approach of holding schools accountable on metrics that are easily observable and standardized creates perverse incentives that narrow the curriculum, stifle innovation, and can drive away quality schools from participating in the choice program. Instead, what we need are a variety of different third-party reviewers and platforms for parents and students to share their personal experiences in order to provide parents with the information they need.

I won’t rehash the entire argument here. You can either read the report on the short version at EdNext. The main point I wanted to highlight here was that the market is more likely than the government to overcome the information challenge — but for that to happen, there needs to be a large enough market. As I noted:

The K-12 education sector has historically lacked high-quality sources of information about school performance, but to a large extent that is because the vast majority of students attend their assigned district school. With little to no other educational options, there has been little parental need for information to compare competing options. And without much in the way of competition, existing private schools don’t feel great pressure to be forthcoming about performance data. However, as states implement educational choice policies, the demand for information will increase and schools that refuse to share their data will be at a competitive disadvantage. We are already seeing parents to turn organizations like and to find information about schools they are considering and we should expect to see more organizations emerge as demand increases.

School choice programs that merely fill empty seats are not enough. They won’t bring the transformative change that Milton Friedman and others predicted. Modest choice programs produce modest results. It’s time to go bold.

When Evidence and Science are Really Just Assumptions and Ideology

December 5, 2016

Doug Harris has a new post that attempts to reply to the many critics of his New York Times op-ed, including me.  In the NYT piece Harris claimed that “one well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools.” He also claimed that the relatively light regulatory approach to Detroit’s charter schools has led to “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”  He prefers instead the heavy-regulation approach adopted in New Orleans, which he says has produced “impressive” results.  He then suggests that failing to believe these claims is “a triumph of ideology over evidence.”

Several critics, including me, noted that the “well-regarded study” Harris cites actually finds that Detroit charter schools are producing significantly greater gains than traditional public school alternatives — gains that are only slightly smaller than those in New Orleans and greater than in another high-regulation darling, Denver.  But Harris wants to continue posturing as the person backed by science and evidence, while describing his opponents as ideologues.  In his reply to critics in Education Next he uses the word “evidence” 16 times.

So, his defense of the claim that Detroit charters perform “at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools” must be based on evidence, right? Actually, no.  He provides four arguments to rescue his assertion that “the failure of Detroit charter schools to improve student outcomes” is true despite the fact that the CREDO evidence he cited to make that claim shows otherwise.  Each one of those four arguments is based on assumptions, not evidence.  If you believe all of his assumptions, you might believe his claim that Detroit charter schools really are a disaster. But drawing conclusions that depend completely on assumptions and are contrary to the evidence he cites is certainly not science.  It seems more like a faith-based or ideological exercise.

Let’s consider his four arguments.  First he says, “given the lack of oversight in Detroit and evidence from other cities that some charter schools cherry-pick their preferred students, these results may make Detroit’s charter schools look better than they are.”  Got that?  He has no evidence that Detroit charters are cherry-picking students at all, let alone that they are doing so at a higher rate than in New Orleans, but he nevertheless posits that “if it’s happening, then the charter effects on achievement [in Detroit] are inflated.”

Second, given Harris’ assumed concerns about cherry-picking in Detroit charter schools and the inability of the CREDO study to account for that, he examines evidence from the urban NAEP test and finds that the city of Detroit has experienced below average growth in those scores in recent years.  Using NAEP results from the entire city to draw conclusions about Detroit’s charter schools requires a host of assumptions.  He’d have to assume that test results from all schools, charter and traditional, somehow speak to the effectiveness of charter schools.  He’d have to assume that demographic and other non-school factors in Detroit do not affect the comparison of test growth in Detroit relative to other cities.

A number of education analysts have coined a term — misNAEPery —  to capture how unreasonable it is to make the assumptions required to use NAEP to compare policies across jurisdictions.  Oddly, some of those analysts who like to accuse others of misNAEPery, like Morgan Polikoff and Matt Barnum, have somehow failed to denounce Harris’ use of misNAEPery in both the NYT op-ed and in the Ed Next reply to critics.  Both have even “retweeted” Harris’ new post, so we can assume they’ve read it.

And just to anticipate concerns about my own consistency on the use of NAEP, I think comparisons using NAEP that control for observed demographics are about as convincing as the CREDO results, which also rely on comparisons controlling for some observed characteristics.  Information from NAEP or CREDO can be interesting or suggestive, which is why I say that Arizona charters “appear” to be doing very well, even if I am not convinced that any of this is causal.  At the very least, it is useful to offer a disclaimer that neither NAEP nor CREDO provides convincing causal evidence, even if confession does not assure absolution.  Harris does not offer any disclaimer and instead uses his NAEP comparisons to bolster his assumption that Detroit charters may be cherry-picking.

Third, Harris builds on the observation that Detroit city has very low NAEP test scores to assume that “the extraordinarily low standing of the city as a whole, to the degree it is caused by low performance of traditional public schools, should make it easier to improve student outcomes when trying something new.”  It is also quite plausible — perhaps more plausible — that a city with extraordinarily low test scores also has severe social and economic problems that are outside of the control of schools, which would make it harder for charters to improve outcomes.

Lastly, Harris argues that even if Detroit charters have produced gains, the gains are smaller than those in New Orleans, so we should prefer the regulatory approach used in New Orleans to the one in Detroit. But this assumes that any greater gains produced by New Orleans charter schools are caused by the regulatory approach in that city.  In fact, we have no idea whether New Orleans’ regulations helped, hurt, or had no effect on how large the gains in that city were. For all we know, the gains made by New Orleans charters are largely attributable to the importation of top-notch human capital from elite colleges and a huge increase in per pupil spending, and that these gains were made despite the hindrance of burdensome regulations.  The heavy regulations in Denver somehow failed to produce gains as large as those in Detroit.

Other than these four-assumption-dependent arguments, Harris offers very little to defend the strong claims he made in the NYT that Detroit charter schools have been a “failure” and a “disaster.”  He does cite some national “charter-friendly” organizations, like CRPE and NACSA,  as being critical of Detroit charters.  But that is an argument from authority — not evidence.

He also falsely suggests that Detroit has failed to close failing charter schools.  In fact, 30% of Detroit’s charter schools have been shuttered.  And another national charter-friendly organization, NAPCS, gives Michigan higher marks on closure than Louisiana, noting that Michigan has closed more charter schools than Louisiana, 47 to 26.

Harris also cites two voucher studies with negative results — one of which is an RCT and the other not — as proof that lower regulation approaches are less effective.  Leaving aside the distinct possibility that the negative RCT result for Louisiana was actually a function of the over-regulation of that program, it’s important to note that Harris fails to cite the entire literature of rigorous studies on the effects of private school choice programs, which overwhelmingly shows positive outcomes.

I agree with Doug that ideology, which could more kindly be described as “principles” or “values,” has an important role to play in policymaking.  I just disagree with him that the evidence clearly shows the superiority of a high-regulation approach to school choice.  I think it’s more accurate to say that the evidence is unclear on this matter, which means that we may — appropriately — need to rely more on our values, principles, and broader ideology when deciding how to proceed.

[Edited to remove tangential comment that was poorly phrased.]