Interview on Education Philanthropy

October 11, 2019

Check out my two-part interview on education philanthropy with Mike Hartmann: Part 1 Part 2

Readers of JPGB will recognize many themes from earlier posts like:

Advice to the Arnold Foundation

Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies

Gates Foundation Follies

Build New, Don’t Reform Old


The Eternal Teacher Shortage

September 18, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Oklahoman carries my article on how a century’s worth of headlines in the Oklahoman (formerly the Daily Oklahoman) have kept on telling us over and over again about a dire teacher shortage:

Nor was this limited to 1919. Examples abound in succeeding decades. “State Feeling Sharp Teacher Pinch Again” ran a headline in 1964, for example. That story said shortages happened only occasionally, but the paper ran similar headlines in 1966, 1969 and 1970.

The “dire teacher shortage” story appeals not only to readers who are teachers and their families (a fairly large constituency) but to any reader who likes a good underdog-versus-huge-uncaring-system story.

But journalists ought to be exercising a little more critical thought. Reviewing more recent coverage in Oklahoma, I point out:

The coverage did not raise obvious questions like: If the huge, indiscriminate across-the-board pay raise that was sold as necessary to recruit teachers in fact had little effect on recruitment, why did we enact it?

Or: Shouldn’t we tear down the artificial barriers to entry that keep people out of the teaching profession, like useless certification requirements that have consistently failed to show any connection to classroom outcomes?

Or: Shouldn’t we reform the pay scales and contract provisions that prevent us from targeting the best teachers for recruitment and retention?

No, the implicit takeaway is always more, more, more indiscriminate spending, without systemic reform.

I’d like to thank the Oklahoman for being such a good sport and running this!

Let me know what you think.

Childhood Trauma and School Choice

September 9, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Opinion leaders in Oklahoma are orchestrating a full-court press to use remediation of “childhood trauma” as the next narrative under which they should get big, indiscriminate spending increases without accountability for results. As someone who had a traumatic childhood myself, I’m all in favor of expanding access to effective services in this area. That’s why I’m against big, indiscriminate spending increases without accountability, and in favor of school choice, which actually helps kids with traumatic experiences.

OCPA carries my article:

The usual reply to concerns such as this—other than “you’re cruel and heartless for asking whether the money we spend on helping people actually helps people”—is to lament how hard it is to have a positive impact on such intractable problems. When children are abused or mistreated, or have mental health disorders or other traumatic problems, they lose their proper chance to grow in their human potential. Getting wounded people on the road to recovery and growth is very, very hard.

That is all true. It is not, however, a reason to spend large amounts of money without accountability. It is a reason to look for more promising policy approaches.

There follows a recitation of findings on how school choice decreases rates of childhood trauma and provides a more supportive and effectively nurturing school environment.

I’m also unscrupulous enough to remind everyone of how poorly the Oklahoma government school system handled some notorious cases of childhood trauma just last year:

Last year, a number of cases came to light in Oklahoma in which minority students were being targeted by racist bullies. One family was finally given permission—permission!—to transfer their child out of the school where he was being constantly persecuted. Untold thousands more children continue to suffer in their assigned government schools, whether because of racist bullying or whatever other adversity they experience, because they didn’t happen to catch the attention of the media and make the system look bad.

Why on earth should one family get permission to choose, and not everyone else? Why should even that one family have had to go begging to the powerful and get permission to protect their own child? Did we lose a war?

Yes, by all means let’s throw more money at the unaccountable government monopoly system as the only permissible defense for children experiencing trauma!

I promise not to be traumatized if you let me know what you think.

Op-Ed in Houston Chronicle Against State Takeover of Houston ISD

September 5, 2019

Josh McGee and I have an oped in the Houston Chronicle today arguing against state takeovers.  Here’s the money quote:

State policymakers may imagine that they are smarter and better than the elected officials they would displace, but, even if they were right, the intelligence and goodness of the school board is hardly the issue. Distant and unaccountable bureaucrats, no matter how well-trained and well-intentioned, are unlikely to understand and address the specific needs of communities as well as locally elected officials are, no matter how fractious and chaotic they may appear. Conservatives have long understood this principle, which is why they have traditionally supported decentralization of responsibility over schools to local governments, communities, and families, so it is puzzling that self-styled conservatives in Texas would support state takeovers.

There is no simple solution to chronic low academic performance, but the problem is almost certainly better addressed by empowering communities and families rather than disenfranchising them.

This is a mistake reformers have made over and over.  It’s time we learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them.

Reinventing Education Schools

August 21, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA has published my in-depth policy brief on why efforts to “reform” education schools don’t go deep enough – we need to reinvent them. It will take a generation and the initial policy changes required are politically difficult, but lesser reforms aren’t enough:

These problems do not arise merely from post-1960s radicalism or special-interest politics. Real as those issues are, the deeper roots of the trouble with education schools go back a century. Modern education schools were created as part of a radical movement that rejected the traditional understanding of education as an extension of the home, helping parents in their job of nurturing children and preparing citizens. Education schools were created with a new, technocratic view of the teacher as child development expert, and an ambition to use schools as a political tool to transform the social order in a new image. We shouldn’t abandon education schools, and we probably couldn’t abandon them if we tried. However, neither leaving the schools to reform themselves nor trying to reform them directly by political force is likely to work. Instead, a few simple (though politically difficult) policy changes could create an incentive structure that would make reinvention plausible, attractive, and sustainable for the schools over the long term.

Let me know what you think!

What Do Education Reform Failures Have in Common?

August 20, 2019

Nudge interventions, in which students receive texts encouraging them to do things that are thought to be good for them, have yielded another disappointing result. In a newly released study, Kelli A. Bird, Benjamin L. Castleman, Jeffrey T. Denning, Joshua Goodman, Cait Lamberton, and Kelly Ochs Rosinger report:

We investigate, through two randomized controlled trials, the impact of a national and state-level campaign to encourage students to apply for financial aid for college. The campaigns collectively reached over 800,000 students, with multiple treatment arms to investigate different potential mechanisms. We find no impacts on financial aid receipt or college enrollment overall or for any student subgroups. We find no evidence that different approaches to message framing, delivery, or timing, or access to one-on-one advising affected campaign efficacy.

For those keeping tabs, I expressed my strong doubts about texting in this review of Ben Castleman’s book even as Bill Gates was praising texting interventions and NPR’s Hidden Brain was featuring it as a success. And then my skepticism was strengthened when texting resulted in null to negative college completion outcomes in a study that received little attention. Now even its early proponents are finding disappointing results.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve predicted that a reform initiative would fail when it would take foundations years and millions of dollars before reaching the same effective conclusion.  I was raising alarms about the Measuring Effective Teacher (MET) initiative while almost everyone was jumping on the teacher evaluation and quality bandwagon.  Several years later and without much fanfare we finally hear that the initiative yielded virtually no benefits. Similarly, when a large chunk of reformers were getting behind no-excuse charter schools as the correct school model, I was warning that the model appeared unable to yield longer-term benefits, so we might not want to put all of our eggs (and all students) into the no-excuse basket. And recently, we’ve seen that Boston no-excuse charter schools have no effect on students completing college. Lastly, I’ve been predicting the political and educational failure of Portfolio Management for some time now. While the Arnold Foundation has doubled down by joining Reed Hastings in giving $200 million to the City Fund to push the idea, I expect it will be shortly after they burn through that money that we’ll hear about a reconsideration of their reform strategy.

Why am I able to anticipate these failures in education reform initiatives, while the people devoting fortunes to these efforts and their staff have such a hard time avoiding strategies that result in failure? I’m not that smart and they aren’t that dumb. I suspect the answer is that foundations have organizational interests that tend to draw them to a mistaken theory about education policy.  In its essence, that theory holds that there are policy interventions that could improve outcomes for large numbers of students if only we could discover them and get policymakers and practitioners to adopt them at scale.

I begin with a very different theory.  I suspect that there are relatively few educational practices that would produce uniformly positive results.  Instead, I’m inclined to think of education as similar to parenting, in which the correct approaches are highly context-specific.  Even within the same family, we may choose to parent different children facing similar issues in very different ways.  There may be some uniformly desirable parenting practices, but most of them are already known and widely disseminated.  So, if we wanted to improve parenting, the best we could do would be to empower parents to be in a better position to judge their context and make their own decisions about how to raise their children.  Similarly, the best we could do to improve education is to empower families and communities to make decisions within their own context.  There is relatively little we could tell all schools or educators to do to improve outcomes.

But foundations and the research community that follows their lead have a very hard time with this kind of theory. They think their job is to use science to identify the correct educational practices and then get everyone on board with doing it.  To decentralize solutions to communities and families is to relinquish control and the status of expertise. So, despite repeated failures in finding top-down policies and practices to improve outcomes at scale, they continue to search for what can’t be found.

As Mike McShane and I pointed out in our edited volume, there is nothing inherently wrong with failure in education policy.  The problem is if we refuse to acknowledge that failure and learn from it. Given the string of reform failures that large foundations have experienced over the past decade, it might be productive if they devoted some serious energy to reconsidering their basic assumptions about top-down policy solutions and became more open to the possibility that the most they could do is to empower communities and families to find their own solutions.


The Origin Story of Education Savings Accounts

August 19, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at Redefined I decided it would be a good idea to get the history of Education Savings Accounts written before any of us involved get hit by a bus. In the first post Dan Lips returns from walking the earth like Kung Fu (aka working on stuff other than K-12) to recount the school choice debates which helped inspire him to develop an account based choice proposal. In a sequel post I explain the circumstances by which we on the ground in Arizona put the ESA theory to practice.