The Education of High Performing Students

September 6, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fordham released an interesting report last week making the case for including high performing students as a subgroup in state accountability systems. Like most of you who spend your time reading obscure blogs written by wonks on a continuing mission to entertain themselves, I am sympathetic to the needs of high achieving students. In fact, recently a person who served as an official in the administration of Janet Napolitano when she was Governor of Arizona told me that gifted education was THE issue when they took office in 2003. The parents of gifted students were up in arms that there was very little to nothing to meet the needs of their children, and elected officials were hearing about it non-stop.

Then, I was told, the parents discovered BASIS charter schools. Things quieted down.

Arizona had badly over-exposed testing items in those days, and the dreaded worksheets drilling to those over-exposed items were too much in evidence once students reached the 3rd grade (the first year of state standardized testing). I experienced this first hand as a parent, and have heard the tale repeated many times in conversations with other parents during the sad, dying days of the AIMS exam. We called it “the 3rd grade wall.”  One of the priorities for those concerned with the education of high achieving students should be to maintain the integrity of the state testing system (aggressively curtailing item exposure and excessive district test prep) imo.

So anyway, I don’t have a problem with including high-achieving students as a subgroup, but I also don’t see it as strong tea.  The NAEP seems to suggest likewise. I ran cohort gains on 4th (2011) to 8th grade math (2015) for a relatively generic group of relatively high performing students- non-FRL eligible students in the general education program. Fordham identified four states as leaders in high-achieving subgroup accountability: Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon and South Carolina.

Math general ed non FRL

So putting on my social science cap, let me note that I have no idea what drives these numbers. One can certainly speculate with some confidence that socio-economics has something to do with it. Massachusetts and New Jersey top the list for instance, and just happen to be two of the four states with an average family income for a family of four in the six figures. DC also did well, but remember this is a very select slice of DC- the part that is knocking the ball out of the park. To the extent that policy has an impact on this (unknown) we should expect lags, etc. so try not to get too excited.

It’s hard to draw many conclusions from this, other than Arkansas’ dead last ranking seems to indicate that states need to do a great deal more than put high-achieving students in as a subgroup. My advice for Arkansas from the Cactus Patch (we are nipping at the heels of MA and NJ despite being much less wealthy and spending far less per pupil than either state btw) is, ah, see about passing some strong choice programs. Also, get BASIS on line one, stat.


Fordham’s Economics Malfunction

June 9, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, Checker Finn and Brandon Wright of the Fordham Institute published an essay highlighting three “market malfunctions” in the charter school sector. What they highlighted instead were primarily government malfunctions.

The first “market” malfunction they identify is the apparent lack of congruence between supply and demand:

As rapidly as it’s grown (6,800+ schools at last count), the supply of charters has not keep up with demand in most places. (Estimates of the total waiting list go as high as a million kids.) All sorts of political, budgetary, and statutory obstacles have limited the number, size, and locations of charter schools.

Political, budgetary, and statutory obstacles… these are market malfunctions?

Skipping number two for a moment, their third supposed “market” malfunction is the problem of what they call “distracted suppliers”:

Many charters are strapped for funds. They feel overregulated by their states, heckled by their authorizers, and politically stressed, so the people running them often struggle to keep their heads above water (which includes keeping enrollments up). They have little energy or resources to expend on becoming more rigorous or investing in stronger curricula and more experienced instructors.

Strapped for funds when the law prevents them from charging their customers anything. Overregulated by their states. Politically stressed.

Again, my Fordham friends, these are market malfunctions?

Their second concern is the closest they come to identifying a market malfunction: weak consumer information.

Even where parents are mindful of school quality and try their best to be discerning, consumer information in this marketplace remains incomplete, hard to access, and difficult to understand. State report cards are ubiquitous yet lacking. Even when they adequately display academic achievement in tested subjects, they cannot begin to convey all the other information that goes into a sound school choice. What, for example, does the school truly value? Are its classrooms quiet and orderly or lively and engaged? How does it handle character development? Discipline? Disabilities? Do students and teachers like it there or flee as soon as possible? The list goes on.

Yes, the market (as well as the government) has failed thus far to provide bountiful, accessible, and high-quality information about most schools. I’ve explained how the market could accomplish this (e.g., a combination of private certification, expert reviews, and consumer reviews) and there are some organizations already trying to fill this gap (e.g., GreatSchools), but there’s still much more to do.

Of course, one reason that there are so few third-party organizations providing such information is that the government crowds them out, both by providing their own scorecards (which Finn and Wright find wanting) and by operating a massive system of “free” district schools that crowd out private alternatives.

So again: you call these market malfunctions?

Attack of the Wonks!

June 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As the Fordham Institute’s ESA Wonk-a-thon is coming to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As JayBlog readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. (If an author thinks I missed or misconstrued something, please yell at me in the comments section.) The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure all ESA students take NNR tests and track student outcomes. The state treasurer must ensure the application process is user friendly, distribute restricted-use debit cards, and conduct annual audits. Otherwise, providers should be free to innovate and parents should be free to choose among them.

Matthew Ladner (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should ensure financial accountability through restricted-use debit cards and the whitelisting of vendors and eventually of individual products. The market can foster quality through platforms where users rate providers (as happened informally in Arizona). The state should aggregate NNR test scores and hire an academic researcher to report on the data, but otherwise avoid trying to regulate quality.

Jonathan Butcher (Goldwater Institute): The state should ensure the ESA funds are being used for eligible educational purposes by reviewing receipts before issuing the next quarterly installment. Students should take NNR tests and the state should commission an academic researcher to report on the results. Otherwise, policymakers should rely on the market to ensure quality.

Tracey Weinstein (StudentsFirst): The state should “set a high bar for the quality of services offered by providers” and “eliminate providers who consistently fail to meet the mark.” The state should also provide ESA families with information about providers.

Andy Smarick (Fordham Institute): The state should “prioritize transparency, continuous and small-scale course corrections, and research” and “collect and publish information on providers, participation rates, student outcomes, and more.” In the long term, researchers should “study how the public’s interests are and are not being met by these increasingly private choices.”

Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans): Nevada should increase public funding to $7,000 per student with more for low-income, ELL students, and special needs students, and that educational institutions should be prohibited from charging ESA families additional tuition beyond the amount the state deposits in the ESA. 

Lindsey Burke (Heritage Foundation): State regulators should stay out of the way of the market. The state should primarily concern itself with ensuring taxpayer dollars are used only for eligible expenses and making the application process transparent and user friendly. Responsibility for academic outcomes should lie primarily with parents, though the state’s NNR testing requirement is appropriate.

Jason Bedrick (Cato Institute): Policymakers should resist the urge to overregulate. Quality is best fostered through the market process: provider experimentation, parental evaluation, and organic evolution. A robust market ensures quality by channeling expert knowledge (e.g. – private certification and expert reviews) and user experience (e.g. – platforms for user ratings). The state should limit its role to ensuring that ESA funds are spent only on eligible expenses and serving as a repository for information. 

Adam Peshek (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should primarily concern itself with providing financial accountability (restricted-use debit cards, auditing), but responsibility for academic outcomes should rest with parents. We must “remain vigilant against death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education): Nevada must recruit a “new breed” of bureaucrat that will “learn how to regulate choice without squashing innovation,” “develop creative and better approaches to fiscal and performance accountability,” “coordinate with non-governmental agencies to develop a strong supply of high-quality providers,” ensure transparency, and “build a dashboard of indicators of a healthy market and government regulatory structure” (among other objectives).

Travis Pillow (redefinED): Regulators should give providers the freedom to experiment (even though some experiments will fail). However, the state should ensure the health and safety of students and prevent financial fraud. The results of NNR tests should be reported to parents and the public. The state should provide an online forum for parents that would help catch administrative problems and could serve as a Yelp-like provider rating system. The state should give more money to low- and middle-income families and students with special needs. 

Robert Tagorda (SoCal education reformer): To operate at scale from the outset, the state treasurer’s office and state department of education must collaborate effectively. The state must broker information to ensure the marketplace functions properly, but it can’t do it alone. The state must foster organic solutions and exchanges of information such as platforms for user reviews.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen (Agudath Israel): “Almost universal” eligibility isn’t good enough. The state should expand eligibility to all students, not just those who attended a district school for 100+ days in the previous year.

There appears to be some consensus around financial accountability. The state must ensure that ESA families are only using taxpayer funds for their intended educational purposes. To that end, most of the wonks who addressed the matter called for utilizing restricted-use debit cards and/or auditing.

The primary area of contention is the role of the state in guaranteeing educational quality. Some want the state to set standards, measure performance, and perhaps even “eliminate” providers who don’t meet those standards. Others (myself included) respond: “Get your regulatory paws off me, you dirty technocrats!” are concerned that such efforts would stifle the very diversity and innovation that the ESA is intended to foster.

It’s an important debate. I commend both the Fordham Institute for hosting it and the participants for offering their insightful analysis. Differences in means aside, we all share the same end: fostering an education system in which all children have access to high-quality providers that meet their individual needs.

Who’s “We,” Fordham-Sabe?

January 20, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before he had a sitcom, Bill Cosby used to have a series of Lone Ranger jokes in one of his old stand-up acts. In one part of the routine, the Ranger tells Tonto something like, “They outnumber us ten to one, so we’re going to ride down the hill full speed, we’re going to cut across right through their sights, then we’re going to engage them hand to hand. Any questions?”

“Just one, Kemo Sabe.”

“What’s that?”

“Who’s ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

That’s also the right answer to Fordham’s insistence that choice students must take state tests because, as Jay summarizes it, “we’ve got to do something!” That’s an accurate summary of the presupposition coming out of Fordham – you aren’t in favor of reform unless you think that you are the one to dictate what a good education looks like.

Yes, “we” have to do something to invent better ways of educating students. But who’s “we”? Having government standards to measure the government’s school system can be good, even if Common Core is not. However, even when government standards are good, and even when they’re applied only to the government system, they are not the way to reinvent education, because government – by its very nature – is not well designed to 1) innovate effectively, 2) persuade people that the innovations are effective, or 3) build institutions where the institutional culture accepts the innovations as good.

What government does do well is to create the structures of social transaction within which effective innovators and entrepreneurs can operate. The key strategy for education reform should not be to devise the innovations we need but to create structures that enable innovators and entrepreneurs to do so. The more we get caught up in devising the innovations ourselves, the further we move away from creating the conditions necessary for those who really can devise the innovations to do so.

Choice programs today are very poorly designed to support entrepreneurs. They ought to provide universal choice, a generous allotment of funds (though less than what we spend on the behemoth of government schooling) and freedom to innovate with minimal interference. Entrepreneurs need three things to succeed: clients, capital and control. You need a customer base of people who want your service because it makes their lives better. You need those customers to be willing and able to pay you; that’s what sustains the organization that delivers the service. And you need to be free to provide the service according to your own entrepreneurial vision and the needs of your clients, not according to standards devised by politicians and bureaucrats.

See the study I did for Friedman on The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice for much, much more, including data on the impact choice programs are having (or, more frequently, are not having) on the composition of the private school sector.

It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

January 15, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Responding to Fordham’s latest straddle, here on JPGB Matt has pointed out that we shouldn’t trust the job of judging school quality to government, and no one knows this better than Fordham (some of the time, anyway). At Cato, Andrew Coulson and Jason Bedrick point out that the existence of school choice programs inevitably crowds out non-choice-participating private schools, so if choice programs become engines of uniformity, we can kiss educational entrepreneurship and innovation goodbye. First Fordham demands state tests must bow to Common Core, then it demands private schools must bow to state tests, all the while insisting Common Core both is and is not a powerful tool for reshaping curriculum!

At the Friedman Foundation’s blog, Robert Enlow points out that Fordham is also playing both sides of the fence on whether the tests will have to be given only to choice students or to all students in the school:

Fordham even implicitly shows how its testing approach will eventually impact non-voucher private school students: “[i]f a private school’s voucher students perform in the two lowest categories of a state’s accountability system for two consecutive years, then that school should be declared ineligible to receive new voucher students until it moves to a higher tier of performance (emphasis added).”

If a private school accepting voucher students loses those students because of their low performance on state tests, how can it rejoin a school choice program without forcing all of its students to take, and perform well, on the state test?

Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen raised yet. Fordham backs up its position by pointing to the results of a survey of private schools that don’t participate in choice programs. State testing requirements came in seventh on the list of reasons why they don’t participate; demand for universal eligibility and higher choice payments were the top answers.

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

Basically the attitude revealed by the Fordham survey of non-choice-participating private schools is “we want choice, but only if it doesn’t require us to change.” Funny thing; the public monopoly blob gives us pretty much the same line.

Fordham vs. Fordham on Private Choice Transparency

January 14, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Fordham Institute has a new white paper out on accountability in private choice programs.  The headline will be that Fordham supports requiring students participating in voucher and tax-credit programs to participate in state accountability testing.  Adam Emerson, the author of the study and the new charter school chief in Florida (congrats btw Adam) wrote:

Surely there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that
downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in choice programs of this kind.

The two key words in this sentence: risk and if.

Emerson believes that the risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available to parents can be managed by state officials being smart. Even the most insulated policymakers on the planet (say the Federal Reserve Board, which can more or less print its own budget) make decisions on far more than a technocratic basis. Even to the extent they do stick to their best judgement, they sometimes get things wrong in a spectacular fashion. Democratically elected lawmakers drift in and out of what Edmund Burke described as delegate and trustee roles of representation. The results, far from smart, are sometimes very messy and even counterproductive.

To gain an appreciation of the limited influence of technocrats in K-12 testing policy, I would suggest reading some of the Fordham Institute’s voluminous work making the case of what a complete hash a great many states have made of their testing systems for public schools. Here is a useful quote from the Proficiency Illusion:

Standards-based education reform is in deeper trouble than we knew, both the Washington-driven, No Child Left Behind version and the older versions that most states undertook for themselves in the years since A Nation at Risk (1983) and the Charlottesville education summit (1989). It’s in trouble for multiple reasons. Foremost among these: on the whole, states do a bad job of setting (and maintaining) the standards that matter most—those that define student proficiency for purposes of NCLB and states’ own results-based accountability systems.

Something far more than the I.Q. of policymakers seems to be at work here. The theme goes on in another brilliant Fordham report, the Accountability Illusion (emphasis added by yours truly):

As currently implemented, NCLB is not a discriminating system. A tremendous amount of money and energy has been spent to create the impression that there is accountability, and there are large numbers of schools throughout the United States that are in some phase of sanctions. But the accountability is not coherent. We found states where most schools failed to make AYP and others where nearly every school made it. We found demonstrably good schools that failed to make AYP far too often, and some pretty mediocre ones that slide by in some states.Thus what seems like accountability is an illusion. Good schools get sanctioned, bad schools get off, and ultimately students get shafted, since maintaining this illusion has a cost. When good schools get sanctioned, resources are wasted and we risk causing quick-fix, panic driven, counterproductive change in schools that may ultimately hurt students. When bad schools get off, their students are denied opportunities (what we unfortunately now call “sanctions”) that might lead to a better education, including the chance to attend a different school, or receive supplemental services, or simply obtain assurance that the workings of a perennially dysfunctional school will be addressed and corrected.

If those policymakers had been “smart” then thing may not have turned out this way. Many of the state testing systems that Fordham is now anxious to impose on private choice students have been previously described as costly frauds by, well, Fordham itself.

I don’t have a problem with private schools choosing to take the state test if it is done voluntarily.  Personally I wouldn’t want anything to do with a private school that lacked the self-confidence to have their own curriculum, but to each their own.  I like national norm reference testing as a light-touch method of providing transparency while leaving curricular choices up to schools.  If policymakers are so inclined, using such data to exit bottom-feeder schools could be undertaken without imposing state tests.

The whole idea of creating a parental choice program however is to provide parents with the broadest possible array of meaningfully varying options so that they can choose a great fit for the needs of their child. Accordingly, we should never make the mistake of viewing the job of a private school participating in a choice program as teaching the state’s curriculum or giving their tests. Rather their job is to satisfy the individual needs of the student to the satisfaction of parents. Parents will find schools following the state’s curriculum and giving the state’s test in abundant supply.  The whole purpose of private choice options is to create a diversity in the menu of choices available to parents and students.

It isn’t the lack of I.Q. that created the mess in state testing systems, rather the natural limitations of technocrats operating within a pluralistic democracy.   We would be wise to recognize these limits and to craft our choice programs accordingly.

Defending the Ohio Reading Guarantee

October 31, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Tracy Craft from BAEO, Terry Ryan from Fordham and yours truly from the Foundation for Excellence in Education have teamed up to push back on attacks on Ohio’s reading guarantee policy. Just as a quick reminder of just how radically successful this effort has been in Florida, the chart below shows the trend of students reading at the lowest level of reading achievement (FCAT 1) at the 3rd grade level:

Edited for Clarity