Providing Computers Does Not Improve College Enrollment, Employment, or Earnings

February 6, 2018

Image result for terminator

In a fascinating new study by Robert W. Fairlie and Peter Riley Bahr, they examine the effects of an experiment in which some community college students received free computers and others did not by lottery.  Comparing these randomly assigned treatment and control groups, the researchers found that computer skills rose among students who were given computers, but those skills did not translate into higher college enrollment, employment, or earnings for the treatment group.

These results are particularly important because many politicians have focused on improving computer skills as the key to improving educational outcomes.  In Arkansas, the main education policy initiative championed by the governor is a law that requires all public schools to offer computer science classesTexas has adopted a similar policy.  Leaving aside all of the obvious practical concerns, like whether schools have or can develop staff qualified to teach computer science, this new research raises questions about the aim of these policies.  How important is increasing computer skills for the vast majority of students?  No one doubts that most workers have to use computers, but many students may already possess the skills they need and it seems doubtful that raising average computer skills would lead to significant changes in employment outcomes — and that’s assuming we can improve computer skills in a meaningful way.

The new study is also incredibly useful in that it reminds us of how important it is to rely on randomized experiments rather than studies that use matching or controls for observables.  They conclude:

Importantly, our null effect estimates from the random experiment differ substantially from those found from an analysis of CPS data, raising concerns about the potential for selection bias in non-experimental estimates of returns.  Estimates from regressions with detailed controls, nearest-neighbor models, and propensity score models all indicate large, positive, and statistically significant relationships between computer ownership and earnings and employment, in sharp contrast to the null effects of our experiment.  It may be that non-experimental estimates overstate the labor market returns to computer skills.

It is simply false that matching studies are just as good or almost as good as randomized experiments.  Sometimes you get the same result in a matching and RCT study, but that could simply be because selection did not bias the result in that case or you were just lucky.  Sometimes a coin flip will also give you the same result.  Theoretically, we know that selection bias is a serious concern, which means that we can never have strong confidence in research designs that assume selection issues don’t exist.

(edited slightly)


My Charter School in Canada

February 4, 2018

Image result for my girlfriend who lives in canadaImage result for my girlfriend who lives in canada

Matt Ladner and Max Eden have observed that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) as well as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) give their highest ratings to states that barely have any charter schools.  As Max noted of the NAPCS rating: “Half the states in the top ten have fewer than 10 charter schools.” He added: “three of your top 10 states have produced 20 schools in 20 years.”

It’s bad enough that there is no evidence to support the criteria that NAPCS and NACSA use to rate state charter laws, but it’s intolerable that their ratings seem to praise policies that are associated with slowing the spread of charter schools — the exact opposite of what these groups are supposed to be advocating for.

It’s nice that Robin Lake is noticing that charter growth has stalled and that Portfolio Management is beginning to block more charter schools in Denver, but somehow neither she nor Paul Hill, nor any of the other charter intelligentsia, seem to be able to connect the dots and trace the problem to the types of burdensome regulatory schemes that they all prefer.  These folks back burdensome regulations with the claim that they help promote charter quality and forestall political problems, even though there is no evidence that they accomplish either of these goals.  But the evidence is becoming quite clear that what these burdensome regulatory schemes accomplish is the creation of very few charter schools and even fewer led by minority members of local communities.

It’s as if the charter intelligentsia thinks that the best charter school is the one that isn’t there.  This reminds me of the Girlfriend in Canada trope.  The best girlfriend (charter school) is the one who isn’t there.  She’s really great and I wish you could meet her, but she lives far away. Avenue Q captured this trope nicely, so I’ve modified the lyrics a bit:

I wish you could go to my charter school
My charter school that’s placed in Canada
The scores couldn’t be higher, I swear I’m not a liar
My charter school that’s placed in Canada
Its leadership is Ivy League, too bad they’re all lily-white
Competitors are not in sight, no one can put up a fight
They test kids every single day, just to make sure that everything’s okay
It’s a pity the school’s so far away in Canada
Last year we reported the highest grad rate
Too bad it’s because we chose to inflate
It’s so sad, that doesn’t mean we’re not great
Our discipline’s progressive and our politics transgressive
I wish you could go to my charter school
But you can’t because it’s in Canada
I know I’m persistent, even if it’s non-existent
That’s why I favor district schools… er, I mean charter schools
Darn, I really want district schools to create more charter schools
It’s the best charter school, my wonderful charter school
Yes, I have a charter school that’s placed in Canada
And I can’t wait to give kids more choices

It’s Time for Technocratic Beauty Pageant Charter Rankings to End

February 2, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released their new rankings of charter school laws. I gave NACSA grief for their rankings, so I need to be an equal opportunity offender in the interests of consistency I need to do the same for NAPCS. Both sets of rankings rate state charter laws against a model bill, and as a consequence, both wind up ranking relatively weak charter laws in their top 10. There is an obvious problem here- we may not know what a good charter law is, and this may be especially the case given the diversity of needs and cultures across states. Best then to judge charter laws by their outcomes, and here is where you find difficult to justify patterns in the model bill rankings.

Both NACSA and NAPCS have ranked Indiana as the top ranked charter law. There’s a problem with this however as Indiana’s charter school law has not produced many “charter schools.” The Brookings Hamilton project provided this handy map that shows the percentage of students per state that have a charter school operating in their zip code:

A reasonable way to judge the quality of a charter law in my book would be some combination of the following factors-how many charter school seats has your law produced, what does the average achievement of charter school students look like, and the degree of competitive pressure is being generated on the district system. Indiana appears meh on all three fronts, except with regards to academics where they have been too small to show up in the NAEP samples thus far.

So if a judging against a model bill puts Indiana on top, is it possible that there is something wrong with the model bill itself? Yesterday during a lively conversation on social media Max Eden made the following observations regarding states landing in the top 10 of the NAPCS rankings:

Mississippi is 5 years old. There are two charter schools there.

Maine is 8 years old. There are nine schools there.

Washington state’s law is six years old. They have 8 schools. And what, then, are the rational grounds for believing that these newer laws are superior?

So, three of your top 10 states have produced 20 schools in 20 years. There is no rational case for why this is a better approach. If state policymakers follow your model law, charter growth will be strangled.

You need to be very innocent with lots of solid alibis if Max Eden is prosecuting a case against you, and well, things are looking pretty grim for the model bill approach. Referencing the handy Brookings map above we see only 4.3% of Maine students have a charter school operating in their zip code. Less than one percent in Washington, and then you Mississippi…zero point zero.

This map is from 2015 so things are somewhat better now, but not much and the point remains. Kentucky passed a charter law, and it also landed in the NAPCS top 10. I read a late (not final) version of the bill, and based upon that reading I would say we should expect the sort of pace that Eden noted in Maine, Mississippi and Washington. The draft I read greatly empowered school districts to interfere with the operations of charter schools to an extent that struck me as likely to dissuade rational actors from coming in from out of state, and all but the most gung-ho in-state operators.

If charter school laws that fail to produce charter schools are topping your rankings, it is time to reexamine the bill. There looks to be something or somethings deeply wrong with it. In meantime, congratulations to Indiana for winning what amounts to a technocratic beauty pageant.

OMG! I knew that one year default closure provision would impress the judges!

If you’d like to see the states whose students are actually benefiting from their state’s charter laws, the Brookings map is a good place to start. The first duty of a charter school law is to provide charter school seats- any charter law is somewhere on the boutique curiosity to abject failure spectrum without them. Summing up it is best to always remember:

Size does matter!

Sad and Lonely is a Bad Look-Even More Than Usual When You Lead in Gains

January 30, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb turned in a gem recently on the improvement in Arizona academic achievement:

The furious reaction to an ad campaign by some Arizona business organizations raises a question that deserves more than a superficial ponder: Why is there such resistance, hostility even, to good news in Arizona, particularly about K-12 education?

Arizona schools are seriously underfunded compared to other states. Legions have made the leap, based upon this indisputable fact, that Arizona children are getting a lousy education compared to the kids in other states.

That has never really been the case.

According to the 2009 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, the most reliable cross-state measure of student learning, Arizona kids, considered as a whole, did lag behind the national average.

But that was mostly a function of demography. When the data was disaggregated, Arizona was right around the national average. White students in Arizona did as well as white students elsewhere. And Latino students in Arizona did as well as Latino students in other states.

When the 2015 NAEP results came out, Matt Ladner, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, made a startling discovery. Arizona students led the country in gains between 2009 and 2015.

According to the NAEP administrators, who work for the federal government, Arizona results for students as a whole in 8th grade reading and math were now “not significantly different” from the national average. Arizona white students now score above the national average for white students. As do Arizona Latinos compared to Latino students elsewhere.

This should be very big news. It should have catalyzed an intense discussion and inquiry about what was happening in Arizona classrooms that yielded such astonishing results, particularly during a period when the schools were on starvation rations when it came to resources.

 Instead, these remarkable results have created barely a ripple in the discussion of K-12 education in Arizona.

Robb gives yours truly too much credit as there were others who noticed the Arizona gains earlier than me. I simply dug into the details and subgroups trends. In any case, Robb does an admirable job of describing the climate in Arizona. The dedication in some quarters to what seems to be an entirely self-defeating and irrational strategy is truly astounding.

The strategy strikes many of us as follows: how many entrepreneurs attempting to raise investment capital would make the argument that even vaguely sounds like “our product is HORRIBLE and you should be ASHAMED unless you give us more money. Buy our stock or you are a bad person!” How do we imagine such a strategy would work out?

“Everything is HORRIBLE!!!!” is a whip-up the base type strategy, but contributes to skepticism and ultimately defeat by poisoning the well with the public. In 2012, the districts put a tax measure on the ballot to support education, which failed almost 2-1 on election day. Then, as now, people were touting polls allegedly showing that the public supported the measure, but on election day the voters rejected it overwhelmingly. Proponents still grouse about the no campaign, but the no campaign won for a reason and in fact people on the yes side of the effort swear up and down that the support for the measure had begun falling before opponents launched their campaign.

The reason is simple: the public lacks confidence that increased spending will see the inside of a classroom. In other words they fear (rationally) that the money will simply be wasted. A non-stop narrative of “Everything is HORRRIBLE!!!!” is like the soundtrack to building public skepticism regarding sending good money after bad in AZ K-12.

Robb notes in his column that district supporters fear that drawing attention to Arizona’s nation leading gains may undermine the case for additional revenue, allowing some to make the case that current funding levels are “good enough.” I however believe that the opposite is true- instead of the self-defeating misguided pitch above, what if the pitch became “Arizona has the fastest improving public education achievement scores in the nation. We are asking for your increased support in order to accelerate our momentum in providing our students the knowledge, skills and character necessary for success in life.” Imo:

I’m content to let this whole democracy thing work itself out on the question of funding. Arizona has lots of old people and large average family sizes. The states just above and below us on the funding rankings are Idaho and Utah, respectively. Hmmm…what do those states have in common? Here’s one:

Arizona (and Idaho and Utah) have large average family sizes and we should not want or expect this to change. Arizona has lots of retirees living on fixed incomes anxious to vote every election- and this is increasing. Arizona has no oil gushers or hedge fund billionaire clusters paying sky high income taxes. Add on top of that a self-defeating trash-my-own product fundraising strategy reinforcing a notion on the part of the public that Arizona schools could not find their posterior with both hands and a map. Call me nuts, but disabusing the people of this latter notion, rather than reinforcing it, is helpful rather than harmful to the case for increased funding.

Arizona is never, and I mean EVER going to win a spending per pupil contest, but some cards could be played much better. Instead of winning a spending contest, we have been winning a bang for the education buck contest and leading the nation in academic gains. I’ll eventually once again become one of the millions of voters on a statewide funding vote. So far I am batting a thousand as far as landing on the winning side, but my vote is very unlikely to be decisive. If funding were driving results, we would not be seeing trends like this:

So cheer up Arizona- we’ll eventually put the 2018 elections behind us and while the capacity of the school crowd to pull defeat from the jaws of victory is strong, at least the Arizona business community seems to have embraced a positive path forward. Oh and also there is a whole lot to be happy about in improving faster than any state, especially if we can keep it up.



Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)

January 25, 2018


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As a part of Education Week’s recent series on 10 BIG Ideas, businessman Mark Barnes made the case for eliminating grades:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Imagine! It’s easy if you try!

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

It’s no secret that I have libertarian sensibilities, so I certainly don’t want the state mandating that schools give grades (or not give grades, for that matter). Schools and educators should be free to pursue what they believe is the best system of assessment, and parents should be free to choose the learning environments they think best for their children.

That said, while I’m all in favor of abolishing grade levels (a.k.a., Carnegie units), the drive to abolish objective assessments of students’ work that makes it relatively easy to compare their level of proficiency to other students gives me great pause. It’s not just that competition be a great motivator for students, or that grades help students and their teachers and parents identify and correct their deficiencies, although those are crucial functions. As champion educator Doug Lemov recently explained, grades are essential for social mobility:

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

The role grades and standardized assessments have played in social mobility in America, particularly for people of color, is an area where some libertarian educator reformers have sometimes had a blind spot (mea culpa). Much of the anger among black education reformers toward the opt-out movement stems from the fact that it was those very standardized tests that helped shine a spotlight on just how badly America’s district school system was failing students of color.

I still firmly believe that the unintended consequences of mandating a single test outweigh the benefits, but that’s only because I am also confident that there are less onerous means of objectively assessing students and schools (e.g., a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests) that would still reveal unjust racial gaps without the downsides of a single test. Eliminate testing altogether, however, and those racial gaps won’t disappear — they’ll just be rendered invisible again. As Lemov explains, that wouldn’t be so bad for the elites, but it would be terrible for low-income minorities:

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste — you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.

Wild West Parents to Ineffective Schools-DRAW!

January 25, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yours truly has a new piece at Ed Next today called “In Defense of Education’s Wild West: Charter Schools in the Four Corner States.” Here’s the punchline:

Just as the country benefits from political diversity, we also benefit from a diversity of policy approaches at the state level. There are those who seek greater uniformity among state charter-school policies—urging that all charters should be for five years and that default closure provisions should be spelled out, among other guidelines. Such advocates should consider the success of these western states, which have chosen not to adopt such policies. The 50 states will become less useful as laboratories of reform if we adopt a single set of policies everywhere.

Many states—including three of the four featured here—have experienced high rates of overall K–12 enrollment growth, which raises the opportunity cost of imposing a stringent charter-authorizing process. It does not follow that every state should rush to amend its charter policies to match those of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, or Utah, but the obvious flourishing of the charter sectors there offers food for thought. Questions to consider and debate include: What factors have led to success in these states? What steps can policymakers and philanthropists take to enable parents to take the leading role in closing undesired schools? How important a role does open enrollment in suburban districts play in creating a successful bottom-up accountability system?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we do know that relatively freewheeling charter-school systems have prospered in multiple states. Surely we have as much to learn from these success stories as we do from the cautionary tales from states that have experienced difficulties.

Check it out and let me know what you think.



Pass the Popcorn: Words and Deeds

January 24, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Okay, depending on where you live, maybe maybe maybe it’s not too late for you to head out and see Darkest Hour on the big screen. As the surprise standout in Oscar nominations, the movie may find itself on a few extra screens. (Theaters screening Mary and the Witch’s Flower get a dispensation, all others are on notice.)

This is a visually stunning movie and it well deserves a big-screen screening. I especially appreciate the filmmakers’ having lavished so much effort on the cinematography of a movie that isn’t about superheroes or spaceships, and for that matter doesn’t even have that much to work with in terms of war machines.

Yes, part of it is the effort put into the bombing scenes. But it’s also recreating the cramped quarters of the underground bunker, the vast chamber of Parliament, and the dingy makeshift bedroom in which the king made his decision to back the war.

Oh, and whoever it is playing Churchill does a pretty okay job, too.

(I’m proceeding with full spoilers because, duh, history.)


This movie begins as a character study of Churchill. But any character study of Churchill must ask the question: What is it that makes a man refuse to agree to surrender his nation (for that is what “negotiations” with Hitler would have meant) even in the face of certain destruction? And that is not really a question about the man. It is a question about the nation. For, as it is the burden of this movie to show, Churchill could not have stood firm if the nation had not been willing to stand firm.

Yes, part of the story is that Churchill’s leadership brought the nation to choose resistance unto death. But leaders must have something to work with. The nation itself has to have moral resources for making right but hard choices.

This is why I cannot join those who are upset that this movie emphasizes Churchill’s temporary willingness to broach negotiations. It looks to me like the movie did not deviate from the historical record as far as some suggest. Perhaps it would have been better to show a little more of the cunning that lay behind Churchill’s decision to speak to the outer cabinet; Churchill did manufacture their pressure upon him to change course and forbid negotiations. But the point of this movie is that Churchill was almost boxed in. The professional political class did not provide the moral resources needed to sustain a stand against Hitler. Churchill had to go find them elsewhere.

So this movie transitions from a character study of Churchill to a character study of Great Britain. It asks: What are the moral resources of a nation?

The answer is words – but not words.

Words cannot produce the needed force by themselves, because the needed force is moral, and it transcends mere words. That is the abracadabra fallacy. But words rightly used are needed to transform moral truth into moral action.

Persuasion is not an autonomous power. Persuasion exists to connect people to truth.


The first big turning point of the movie is when Churchill lies to the nation about the severity of the situation in France. As he says to his wife, for years he has been the only person with the guts to tell the people the truth. But now he believes he has to lie to them.

This, the movie makes clear, was a wrong move – the abracadabra fallacy.

Halifax, demanding Churchill negotiate, tells him that with the British army facing certain destruction, he has nothing to fight Hitler with but “words, words, words!”

Yet that same Halifax, at the end of the movie, declares that Churchill has won with words. “What just happened?” someone asks Halifax after Churchill wins over Chamberlain’s faction to support the war effort.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into war,” replies Halifax.

And what is the bridge between words and moral reality? History.


History brings us into contact with two things that give words moral reality: kings and books.

Our nations and their institutions and traditions are a mess. They really are. They’ve done much wrong and are shaped by many irrational forces. And they are not an absolute authority, for there are authorities in whose light they too can be judged (we will come back to that in a moment).

But they embody moral truths, because human beings are moral creatures and we cannot organize our lives in any kind of sustainable way except around moral truth. And so the institution of the monarchy may be irrational, but it exists to embody something. When the monarch chooses to carry out this function rather than neglect it, he has extraordinary power. The same can be said to some extent of all political institutions and traditions (including those in republics).

The makers of this movie thought a lot about how to portray George VI. It is clearly in dialogue with another outstanding movie that reflects on the tensions between aristocracy and democracy in light of World War II, The King’s Speech. For one thing, Darkest Hour really wants to make sure you know that Churchill stupidly opposed Edward’s abdication and George’s ascension, despite what you may have seen in that other movie.

It falls to George, who hates Churchill and has every good reason to do so, to make the decision to back Churchill at the crucial moment. When the short-sighted political class all go one way, the king goes the other – because that is his job.

And it is through words, used rightly, that George helps Churchill understand the moral ground he has been lacking. Go to the people, he says, draw from their moral strength and give them “the truth unvarnished.”

Yet this call to go to the people suggests that kings (and by extension political institutions and traditions generally) are not the highest authority.

We find the highest authority in another part of history, in the world of ideas – literature, religion, philosophy – that comes to us from the great minds, through their books.


Yes, the subway scene is odd, and ahistorial, and if the filmmakers had asked me I probably would have told them to find another way to accomplish what they’re doing here. But what they’re doing here is the right thing.

Some have interpreted the scene as an attempt to tear down quasi-aristocratic leaders like Churchill, establishing that they’re not allowed to lead us but we must lead them. That’s not how I read it, and I think Steven Hayward has made that case well, so I don’t have to.

Churchill is going to the nation to find out what they’re made of, how far they’re willing to go. It is right for political leaders to lead with full awareness of how much they can ask of their people.

And what does Churchill find among the people? The words of Cicero – the same words he found earlier in his library:

Then out spake brave Horatius, captain of the gate:

“To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods?”

And so we are led back to political institutions and traditions (the ashes of his fathers), but now in light of what is higher (the temples of his gods) and also what is lower (Londoners on the tube).

For the words of great books are democratizing; they make the lowest highest. They arm ordinary people – even a black man in 1940 Britain – with the moral strength to stand in judgment of a Chamberlain, a Churchill or a George.

And so, in the end, having drawn strength from the words of his national traditions (by way of the king) and the words of the greatest of the wise (by way of the people), Churchill uses his enormous gift with words to rally the nation, giving form and force to their moral resources and saving the world.

His gifts really were extraordinary, but the point of this movie is that his skill with words was less important than his willingness to deploy them for moral truth.

As Chamberlain said: “He was right about Hitler.”