Lessons from Failure

April 30, 2018

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Mike McShane and I have an article in the Phi Delta Kappan Magazine summarizing the lessons we learned from our edited book on Failure.

We took the contributions by Larry Cuban (from Stanford University), Matthew DiCarlo (the Shanker Institute), Anna Egalite (North Carolina State University), Rick Hess and Paige Wiley (the American Enterprise Institute), Ashley Jochim (the Center for Reinventing Public Education), Matthew Ladner (the Charles Koch Institute), Megan Tompkins-Stange (the University of Michigan), Martin West (Harvard University), and Daniel Willingham (the University of Virginia) and boiled it down to three trade-offs and three lessons.

But if like Hillel I had to state what we learned while standing on one foot, I’d say, “Education is an inherently political enterprise, so if you try too hard to substitute normal political processes with the authority of technical expertise, you will fail.”


Another Look at Heavy Regulation and Minority Operators

April 25, 2018

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

EdChoice carries my post using the new NAEP results to bring us back to our earlier discussion of Ian Kingsbury’s finding about what our condescending friends at NACSA do to minority charter operators:

If you’re wondering why the education status quo wants heavy regulation, ask yourself why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked Congress to regulate social media: Regulation cements the power of dominant providers, shutting out smaller and less powerful rivals. That’s why heavy regulation does so much damage to minority communities. They have less political power to influence the content of regulations — which more powerful providers can shape in their own favor — and less ability to afford the enormous cost of compliance.

Borrowing Matt’s graphic above to make the point about Louisiana, land of the overregulated NACSA dream.

Theater Experiment in Educational Researcher

April 24, 2018

You don’t have to wait until tomorrow, tomorrow, or tomorrow.  Our article on the effects of student groups seeing live theater is available on Educational Researcher today!

The article is an updated and peer-reviewed version of the article we posted on SSRN last fall.  In it we discuss the combined results of five experiments we conducted in which students were randomly assigned to go on a field trip to see live theater or be in the control group.  In two of those experiments we added a second treatment condition in which students went on a field trip to see a movie version of the play.  We found that students randomly assigned to see live theater experienced significantly higher tolerance and social perspective taking as well as stronger knowledge of the plot and vocabulary of the plays than the control group.  Being randomly assigned to the movie treatment did not produce these same benefits.

So there seems to be something about experiencing live theater that cannot easily be produced by watching a movie instead.  Given how often schools are inclined to watch movies and how rarely they are now willing to go see live theater, these results are quite relevant.

OK Ed School Follies

April 20, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My latest in OCPA’s Perspective is on ed schools as barriers to entry in the teaching profession:

Arne Duncan, the Obama administration education secretary, said in 2009 that “by almost any standard, many if not most of the nation’s 1,450 schools, colleges, and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st-century classroom.” He said education schools are “cash cows,” and he’s right. Teachers who need credentials are hostages to the ed school system, so universities create ed schools in order to collect the ransom money.

In addition to economic rent-seeking, I also cover the ideological side of the problem:

Gregg Garn, the dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Education, lists “politics of education” as his first area of research interest. On his web page, a document full of left-wing political and policy posturing is listed more prominently than his curriculum vitae. I suppose since education schools seem to exist for political propaganda, it’s fair enough that he considers his political platform a more relevant credential to establish his qualifications than his academic track record.

School me on what you think!

And the Higgy Goes to… John Wiley Bryant

April 17, 2018

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Today taxes are due, so it is time to announce the recipient of this year’s William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  We had many (un)worthy nominees, so it was difficult selecting the winner (loser).  My nominee, Derek Jeter, is certainly annoying in trying to make us eat our baseball vegetables by denying fans the fun distraction of mascot races while the team loses a lot of baseball games goes through its rebuilding phase. But the criteria for awarding The Higgy states that: “‘The Higgy’ will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.”  So, there should be some amount of coercion in whoever receives The Higgy and Jeter is not really forcing anyone to have no fun at baseball games.  If anything, it is my own darn fault for being a Marlin fan.  Jeter is just doing a poor job of running the team, but I am free to become a fan of another team or enjoy something else.

Jason’s nominee, Traci Wilke, was a principal who punished a student for secretly recording a teacher making threats against another student.  There is clearly an element of coercion in the principal’s behavior, but if we started awarding Higgies to every school administrator who suppressed the revelation of unflattering information, we’d run out of space on the internet.  It would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

This year’s Higgy really comes down to Greg’s nominee, Romanus Cessario, or Matt’s nominee, John Wiley Bryant.  Greg’s nominee is certainly vile for defending the forced abduction of a Jewish child because he believes Catholic doctrine requires it.  It almost feels like the sort of argument one might make as a freshman in college to see what ridiculous extremes you might reach if you followed a certain idea to its bitter end.  But this is a serious grown-up writing in First Things, which was once a respectable outlet.  As Greg notes, the really insidious part of the article is that it reveals how much social conservatives seem to be willing to abandon liberalism.  The way I’d put it is that these days you don’t have to scratch much beneath the surface to discover how many Jew-hating authoritarians there really are out there.

But I think Cessario falls short because he has no ability to shape the world to his ends.  Writing this kind of drivel has about as much influence on the world as the guy sitting on the park bench muttering to himself about how things will be different when he is in charge.  Greg is right that abducting children is BSDD, but I think writing in defense of it falls short of being PLDD.  The too-easy embrace of authoritarianism and Jew-hating by social conservatives is alarming, but Cessario is a very mediocre anti-Semite.  He couldn’t even achieve excellence at that.

John Wiley Bryant is the most deserving of this year’s Higgy because he arrogantly and coercively sought to reshape the world in a way he imagined would be better, but ended up making it significantly worse.  Like Matt and many other people of our generation, I gained significant cultural literacy (and had a ton of fun) watching Bugs Bunny cartoons.  For trying to force us to watch “educational” television instead of freely choosing quality programming, John Wiley Bryant is awarded the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.  He joins last year’s winner, Plato, the 2016 winner, Chris Christie, the 2015 winner, Jonathan Gruber, the 2014 winner, Paul G. Kirk, and the inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.

Update — Thanks to Greg for being our official Higgy Historian and remembering earlier winners.


Test Scores and Life Outcomes

April 17, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I have a post at OCPAThink on the lack of alignment between short-term test score changes and long-term life outcomes:

As an education researcher, I feel a little like an engineer hearing that the coefficient of gravitation has been cut in half as an energy-saving measure, or a mathematician getting the news that for the sake of simplicity, Pi will henceforth be rounded down to 3. We’ve spent a generation building our discipline—and education reform ideas—on the assumption that rising scores mean better education. If they don’t, we have to rethink everything.

We’ll have to look beyond tests for the next accountability – school choice and other forms of local control.

We won’t set high standards with the narrow tool of test scores alone. It takes a broad vision to know what education is, and qualitative human judgment to know when schools are providing it. The future of school accountability is the people at large—not a specialist expert class—empowered to use their full human judgment to evaluate schools that they know personally. In other words, school choice and other forms of local control.

The post contains tons of links to Jay’s writing on this, natch!

What’s Wrong With Portfolio Management in Louisiana?

April 16, 2018

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Education reform seems to be consumed by a string of fads.  When things don’t work out, we tend to move on to the next fad without reflecting very much on what went wrong so that we might avoid that error in the future.  Mike McShane and I recently edited a book on Failure, which explicitly attempted to correct this problem by acknowledging failures and trying to draw lessons from them.

One of the recent fads that enchanted reformers was Portfolio Management, which was supposed to ensure that only high-quality school options were available to families.  It’s beginning to be painfully clear that Portfolio Management is failing.  It appears to be failing politically, as Denver retreated from Portfolio Management before it even really got going and New Orleans shifted control of the portfolio back to the long-reviled traditional school district board.  But now there is some evidence to suggest that Portfolio Management is suffering educationally as well.

To the extent that NAEP results are informative about school quality (and I’ve previously expressed my doubts about this), test scores for Louisiana charter schools have been falling off a cliff. In 8th grade math, for example, scores rose to as high as 280 in 2013, but have dropped to 264 in 2017.  A change of 10 scale points is supposed to correspond roughly to a grade level, so this is a pretty precipitous drop over the last four years.  In 8th grade reading scores rose to as high as 261 in 2013 before falling to 254 in 2017.  4th grade reading and math scores have similarly declined.

I’d like to hear what champions of the Louisiana portfolio model think is going on.  I thought Portfolio Management was supposed to give us only high quality options — and it largely relies on test scores as an indicator of quality — so why are the scores dropping?  Are Portfolio Managers actually not very good at predicting quality?  Have there been other regulatory changes that came along with Portfolio Management that have harmed the educational environment?  For example, the leaders of the Recovery School District were at the forefront of eliminating exclusionary discipline from schools.  Could the change in school discipline have eroded behavioral control and harmed achievement?  Of course, it is always possible that there have been changes in the composition of students in charter schools which have caused these declines, although virtually all schools in New Orleans are charters and the composition of the city has not changed that much in 4 years.

But it is important to remember that just eyeballing NAEP scores is a horrible way to assess causal effects of programs, so we should be very wary of attributing any change in scores to any policy or practice.  Nonetheless, NAEP is useful for raising questions and generating hypotheses.  I’d like to hear the hypotheses that supporters of Porfolio Management have to offer that might account for the precipitous drop in NAEP scores in Louisiana’s charter sector over the last several years.