Advice to the Arnold Foundation

October 3, 2017

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is impressive for its intellectual honesty and curiosity.  They have an education reform strategy with which I have some important differences, but they are nevertheless interested in hearing criticism of their approach, so they invited me to present my critique to their board.  Below is the essence of what I prepared for that meeting.  I don’t expect that this will cause them to alter course, nor should it.  It’s their money and they should do whatever they think best.  But the amazing thing about the Arnolds and the head of their education effort, Neerav Kingsland,  is that they are at least open to the possibility of being wrong and want to hear criticism in case they would like to reconsider any aspects of their strategy.

The heart of the Arnold reform strategy is Portfolio Management, which is a term with which they are not enamored, but is essentially a rapid expansion of choices across different sectors with a centralized and muscular system for engaging in quality control.  The Portfolio Manager would govern schools of all types in a location — traditional, charter, and perhaps private — and select which schools should be allowed to operate, which should be closed, and police certain aspects of their operations, including admissions, transportation, and perhaps special education, discipline, and other issues.  I’m a fan of the rapid expansion of choices, but I believe that the centralized and muscular quality control system produces significant educational and political damage.  I am not suggesting that the Arnold Foundation (or the charter movement in general ) abandon all quality control efforts, but I think quality is best promoted by relying heavily on parent judgement and otherwise relying on a decentralized system of authorizers with the most contextual information to make decisions about opening and closing schools if parents seem to have difficulty assessing quality on their own.  The problem with Portfolio Management is the centralized and overly-active nature of a single quality-control entity.  Here is my case in 7 points:

  1. Conceptually, Portfolio Management is no different from School Districts, so there is no reason to expect it to be any better at quality control than School Districts are.  People often claim that PM is different because its mission is only to maintain the quality of the portfolio of schools, not interfere in their operations.  But social scientists think about organizations based on their powers and incentives, not their mission.  Regardless of what PM is supposed to do, we should focus on what it can do and what is in its interest to do.  There is nothing that a PM can do or should want to do, given its organizational interests, that is not also the case for a School District.  PMs can open and close schools, just like  School Districts do.  PMs can set policies that affect school operations, just like School Districts do.  Remember that PMs have already crept into setting policies about admissions, transportation, special education, and discipline — all of which affect school operations.  And the types of schools they decide to let open or force to close shape the curriculum and pedagogy of those schools.  Also remember that School District boards do not actually operate schools, just like PMs don’t.   School District boards just set policies and decide which schools should open and close, just like PMs.  Given that they have the same powers and organizational interests, the only difference I can see between PM and School District boards is that the PM is imagined to be a good guy, who will properly be motivated by quality and avoid interfering unproductively in school operations, while School District board members (even if appointed) are imagined to be bad guys who are more concerned with satisfying special interests and following procedures than with school quality.
  2. Even if you can manage to get a PM system in place (and there are very few), and even if you manage to get “good guys” in charge of it, the good guys won’t stay in charge for very long.  The poster boy for PM, New Orleans, with its exceptional hurricane origin and large charter sector to advocate on its behalf, reverted to control by the previously reviled and inept locally elected school board in about a decade.  Yes, there is a law that swears that the school board now serving as PM will not interfere in charter operations, but these oaths of non-interference hardly provide any protection.  As discussed in 1., PMs already take actions that affect school operations by regulating their admissions, transportation, special education, and discipline.  And their ability to open and close schools can effectively control any other aspect of school operations that they wish.
  3. Even if you can get PM and keep the “good guys” in charge for longer than a decade, the PM is unable to effectively control quality because it has no tools that reliable identify quality.  Basically, the only tool available is the level of test scores.  We all fantasize about a world in which student learning growth on math and reading tests is calculated and used by central authorities to judge quality, but the reality is that very few school systems actually rely heavily on value-added measures (VAM).  In New Orleans, for example, only 5% of the school quality grade is based on VAM.  The rest is based on the level of student performance.  No reasonable person believes that the level of student performance is a reliable proxy for school quality.  Instead, the level of performance is largely a function of the severity of disadvantage among the students.  And yet the PM in New Orleans is making judgments about school closure based on a flawed measure that effectively punishes schools for trying to serve a high concentration of kids who are too disadvantaged.  And even in the imaginary world in which VAM is used, learning growth on math and reading tests only captures a narrow portion of school quality, which is why those measures are not consistent predictors of later life outcomes, like graduation, college attendance, and earnings.  As I’ve written before, you can’t manage quality if you can’t predict it, and PM does not possess any tools to reliably predict school quality.
  4. Even if we thought test score levels or the imaginary future of VAM were good enough for PMs to manage the quality of their portfolio, the heavy reliance on those measures distorts schools in ways that are educationally harmful.  To avoid the risk of being judged low quality, schools will tend to narrow their curriculum to tested subjects and even within those subjects focus more narrowly on tested items.  Other subjects and non-tested material can produce important benefits for students, but PM provides incentives for schools to neglect those benefits.  The result is that we get a homogeneous set of schools that are narrowly focused on improving test outcomes.  That kind of school might be good for some kids, but is certainly not good for all.
  5. The homogeneous set of school options that results from PM is very unlikely to offer anything that appeals to more advantaged families.  It basically results in a charter movement that is designed to serve certain urban students with no-excuses-type schools.  Suburban and more advantaged families have no interest in this kind of schooling for their own children.  By failing to offer more advantaged families any benefits, the charter movement then loses their political support, and advantaged families have much more political power than disadvantaged families.  PM advocates seem to have forgotten that politics is driven largely by self-interest manifested in organized groups.  The crushing defeat of the charter referendum in Massachusetts is at least partially explained by the political foolishness of narrowly focusing the charter movement on a certain type of school to serve disadvantaged students.  No matter what science you present to prove that those schools are good and no matter what appeals to justice you make, advantaged families will not support a movement that poses any risks to their own children and offers them no benefits.
  6. In addition to alienating advantaged, mostly white, families, PM has also alienated minority community leaders.  First, a centralized and muscular system of quality control, like PM, that is only established in urban districts clearly communicates to minority communities a lack of trust in their ability to judge quality as parents or even to judge it as decentralized charter authorizers.  It effectively says that suburbanites can choose whatever they like, but folks in big cities can’t be trusted.  Even worse, raising the barrier to entry for operating a charter school (without actually improving quality, as we already discussed) disproportionately excludes minority community leaders from operating charter schools.  It is the same principle as occupational licensure.  Things that make it hard to enter and have nothing to do with quality typically have the effect of keeping minorities and more disadvantaged people out.  Not surprisingly, we get a charter sector that is largely developed and run by white folks from elite college.  If Rev. Johnson would like to open a charter school in the classrooms he uses for Sunday school, he will have a particularly hard time completing the 700 page application in a way that satisfies the PM’s rubrics and his educational background may not appear as impressive.  But he may know his community well and his political support could be helpful.  Centralized and muscular quality control, like PM, tends to turn these folks away.
  7. The Arnold Foundation invests heavily in another initiative that promotes rigorous science for medical and policy decision-making, yet they do not seem to apply that same standard of proof to their own education strategy.  When pressed, the main evidence they point to in support of PM is a study by Doug Harris that shows that New Orleans made significant gains post-Katrina that cannot fully be explained by changes in the composition of students in the district.  Even if true, however, that study cannot tell us what New Orleans did to produce this improvement.  Perhaps the huge expansion in school choice deserves the credit and the muscular quality control added no benefit or even hurt.  Perhaps New Orleans produced gains because it imported a small army of elite college kids, greatly increasing human capital in the school system.  Maybe the large increase in spending in New Orleans deserves some of the credit.  The point is that attributing the gain to PM is unscientific, since Harris’ research was not designed to address this question.  Saying that we should pursue PM nationwide because New Orleans has it and has improved is roughly the equivalent of saying that you should wear copper bracelets because I wore them and my arthritis feel much better.  If someone made the later claim, the Arnold Foundation would (rightly) scoff at them as quacks.  I understand that foundations cannot have rigorous evidence to support all steps in their reform theory, but before pursuing a reform strategy that promises to close a bunch of schools that parents want and alienating both advantaged suburbanites and minority community leaders, they might want more evidence for the strategy than they have.

Fordham Debate on Future State Gains

October 2, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So you’re hanging out in DC, sad because you can’t get your wonk on, when suddenly you remember that Fordham is hosting a debate on whether Arizona, California, Louisiana or Tennessee have the best prospects for academic gains going forward at 3 pm! !!Spoiler alert!! Special nerdy sneak preview chart above.

Somin: Choice Is More Democratic Than Political Control

October 2, 2017


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Critics of school choice frequently argue that schools are a “public good” that requires public control via democratic institutions (i.e., school boards and state legislatures). Proponents of choice generally respond that school board elections are too easily captured by special interests, that private schools tend to do a better job of inculcating civic knowledge and values, and that school choice better respects the high value our society places on freedom and pluralism.

In a recent blog post, law professor Ilya Somin argues that if we understand democracy more broadly as “people having a say in the decisions that affect their lives” rather than mere majoritarianism (“one person/one vote”), as some modern democratic theorists argue, then school choice is also more democratic:

Much depends on exactly what it means for people “to have a say in the decisions that affected their lives.” If it merely means having some minimal opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, then African-Americans in 1950s Topeka had enough “say” to qualify. After all, they, like whites, could vote in local elections that decided who would get to direct education policy. True, they rarely actually prevailed on issues related to segregation. But repeated defeats are a standard part of the political process, especially for unpopular minorities.

Blacks living in Topeka under segregation had the right to vote, but how much of a “say” did they really have over the public policies affecting their lives? Somin continues:

But perhaps “having a say” means more than just the right to participate, but actually requires people to have a substantial likelihood of influencing the outcome. In that sense, blacks in Topeka obviously did not enjoy true “democracy.” But their painful situation was just an extreme case of a standard feature of electoral processes. In all but the smallest and most local elections, the individual voter has only an infinitesimal chance of actually influencing the result, about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential election, for example. A small minority of citizens have influence that goes well beyond the ability to cast a vote – politicians, influential activists, pundits, powerful bureaucrats, important campaign donors, and so on. But the overwhelming majority do not.

If having a say means having substantial influence over the content of public policy, most of us almost never have a genuine say. Obviously, most voters are not as dissatisfied with the resulting policies as African-Americans in the 1950s had reason to be. But that is largely because their preferences and interests happen to line up more closely with the dominant political majority, not because they actually have more than infinitesimal influence.

Perhaps you “have a say” if enough other voters share your preferences that the government is forced to follow them. But in that event, the government is still enacting your preferred policies only because powerful political forces advocate for them, not because you have any significant influence of your own. In the same way, a person who agrees with the king’s views might be said to “have a say” in the policies of an absolute monarchy. And if, as Glickman suggests, the goal is to give “all people” a say (emphasis added), then any electoral process will necessary leave many people out. There are almost always substantial minorities who strongly oppose the status quo, but have little prospect of changing it.

In short, in a majoritarian system — even one that has significant protections for minorities — you only “have a say” when a significant number of other people agree with you (either to enact your preferred policy or at least to affect whatever policy is ultimately enacted against your will).

The powerlessness of the individual voter is one of the reasons why many libertarians favor making fewer decisions at the ballot box and more by “voting with your feet.” When making choices in the market and civil society, ordinary people generally have much greater ability to make decisive choices than at the ballot box. When you decide what products to buy, which civil society organizations to join, or where you want to live, you generally have a far greater than 1 in 60 million chance of affecting the outcome. Whether or not it is more “democratic” than ballot box voting, foot voting gives individuals greater opportunity to exercise meaningful choice.

Taking the “having a say” standard seriously also entails cutting back on the powers of government bureaucracies. The latter wield vast power over many important aspects of people’s lives, often without much constraint from either foot voting or ballot box voting.

In other words, for people to truly “have a say,” then we must shift the locus of control away from politicians and bureaucrats toward individuals and families.

If having a meaningful say is the relevant criterion, it also turns out that […] school choice […] is more “democratic” than conventional public schools. In the case of the latter, most individual parents have very limited ability to influence the content of the public education available to their children. They can only do so in the rare case where they can exercise decisive influence over education policy, or by moving to a different school district. By contrast, school choice enables them to choose from a wide range of different options, both public and private. And they can do so without having to either move or develop sufficient political clout to change government policy.

If we truly want the most disenfranchised and powerless among us to have a say over their own lives, we should favor an education system that empowers them to make choices about where and how their children are educated. It’s the democratic thing to do.

Can School Choice Reduce Bullying and Save Lives?

September 29, 2017

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, the New York Times told the tragic story of a student tormented for his ethnicity and sexual orientation who stabbed to death another student who had been harassing him and punched him in class:

“He was constantly taunted at school,” Ms. Hornback said. “I guess he felt his only way out of it was to resort to what he did.”

Ms. Hornback said Mr. Cedeno’s family was not trying to diminish what he did. But she said Mr. Cedeno’s mother had pleaded with staff members at the school for help protecting her son and had met with a guidance counselor there.

“There was no action from the school,” Ms. Hornback said.

Of course, it is impossible to say what would have happened in a different situation. But it’s also not far-fetched to imagine that things would have played out differently had Cedeno’s family had other educational options. Perhaps they could have used a voucher, tax-credit scholarship, or education savings account to place him in a safer learning environment. Alternatively, perhaps just knowing that parents had such options, the school might have taken the situation more seriously and intervened before reaching the boiling point.

Sadly, bullying is all too common. Can expanding school choice options help reduce bullying? That is the question Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight and I addressed in a recent blog post for EdChoice:

It appears that private schools have more robust anti-bullying programs, have students who are more likely to report bullying and fewer reported instances of bullying.

Why do bullying rates appear lower and responsiveness to bullying higher in private schools? We can speculate that when schools are selected by their students, they are more responsive to their needs and to family feedback. We do know for a fact that parents and students who are using the K–12 voucher program in Washington, D.C., believe their private schools are much safer, and parents often list safety as a top reason for choosing a private school.

Obviously, no parent wants to send her children to a school where they feel unsafe, and we are certain public school employees want the best for their students. But at the end of the day, a school system where students are assigned by geographic boundaries simply cannot have all the right answers for every child—and the results can be heartbreaking.

We are not here to pit public schools against private schools against other schooling types. We take a different approach: What might our communities’ schools—whether public, private or otherwise—learn from one another?

There’s no policy intervention that can possibly eliminate all bullying, but expanding educational options would create stronger incentives for schools to address instances of bullying and — if and when schools fail to address it — give bullied students a way out.

Florida Scholarships Boost College Enrollment

September 27, 2017


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program is the largest in the country, serving more than 100,000 students. Those students tend to be among the most disadvantaged–nearly 70 percent are black or Hispanic and their average household income is only about $25,000.

New research from the Urban Institute finds that participating in the program boosts college enrollment:

Participation in the FTC program increased college enrollment rates by 6 percentage points, or about 15 percent, for students who participated in the FTC program at some point during their education. Of students who entered FTC in elementary or middle school, 45 percent enrolled in college, compared with 39 percent of their non-FTC counterparts. For students who entered FTC during high school, college enrollment rates were 48 percent for FTC students and 42 percent for non-FTC students.

Of course, opponents of choice are straining mighty hard to dismiss these findings.

Samuel Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, criticized the study’s methodology as flawed, saying that students who had the energy and motivation to get accepted and remain at private schools may already have an edge compared to their peers in public schools. Abrams said the American education system must be improved by addressing income inequality, accessible childcare and health care and teacher pay in public schools and not by putting more students in private schools.

“This is a solution for some kids, but it can hurt other kids because it concentrates underperformers in their default neighborhood public school,” Abrams said.

Actually, every claim Abrams made is flatly contradicted by previous research.

False Claim #1: Scholarship Students Were More Advantaged

Annual studies by Dr. David Figlio and later by researchers at Florida State University found that participating students were more disadvantaged before entering the program. The most recent study found:

[C]ompared to eligible non-participant students, new FTC students had poorer test performance both in ELA and math before entering the FTC program.

Contrary to Abrams, the scholarship students did not “have an edge compared to their peers in public schools” — they were behind those peers.

False Claim #2: Scholarships Concentrate Poor Performers in District Schools

As noted above, rather than “concentrate underperformers in their default neighborhood public school,” the program gave the most disadvantaged students the opportunity to attend new schools where they caught up to their peers academically (indeed, the FSU research shows that they were competitive with the national average, outperforming their low-income peers), and then were more likely to go to college.

False Claim #3: Scholarships Hurt Nonparticipants

Abrams claimed that the supposed concentration of underperformers in district schools would then hurt those students, presumably via peer effects (as he alluded on Twitter). However, not only was there no such concentration of underperformers, an earlier study by Dr. Figlio and Dr. Cassandra Hart found in that competition from the choice program improved the performance of district school students. Far from hurting them, as Abrams claims, the research shows that increased choice and competition helped everyone.

And on top of it all, the tax-credit scholarship program achieves all this while saving taxpayers money.

That’s a win-win-win situation if there ever was one.

[Note: This blog post was edited slightly for clarity.]



First Prize a Cadillac El Dorado, Second Prize a set of steak knives

September 27, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Please join me at the Fordham Institute on Oct. 3 for a debate between three very distinguished panelists but also one sketchy panelist and yours truly to debate which state has the best prospects for achievement gains in the four years ahead: Arizona, California, Louisiana and Tennessee.  Wonkery with light refreshments to follow so come out and cheer for the Cactus Patch!

How About More “Very Nimble” District Schools?

September 21, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a quote from my state Senator, Kate Brophy McGee, that scores high on the unintentionally hilarious meter. A left of center organization issued a report complaining about procurement rules governing Arizona charters. Senator Brophy McGee stated:

State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a Republican from Phoenix, said charter schools should be held to the same standards as public schools because both deal with public money.

“We’ve given district schools more and more regulation, while not requiring the same of these very nimble charters, and we wonder why the public schools aren’t as successful,” McGee said.

I have what I think is a better idea- one of these two sectors should become more like the other, but based on what we see in the academic data it is the districts who should become more like the charters, rather than the other way around. Last session for instance Governor Ducey called for districts to have similar freedom in hiring to charters. It, ah, seems to be working out really well for charters. This makes all the sense in the world, but reactionary elements of the district establishment acted like it was some sort of ghastly mistake. As the Prime Minister of the UK might say “I refer the honourable gentlemen to the red columns in the above chart.”

If the Grand Canyon Institute or anyone else has evidence of lawbreaking, they should refer these to the appropriate authorities. The State Board for Charter Schools is for instance empowered to investigate complaints. More importantly, Arizona parents are absolutely brutal in punishing schools that fail to deliver- they have other options and can vote with their feet. This is real accountability as opposed to the faux bureaucratic variety.