I Love It when a (Decentralized) Plan Comes Together…

January 14, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason and John White have been having a public dispute over the interpretation of the NBER Louisiana study. I await Jason’s response, and given the importance of the subject I hope both sides of this debate will take pains to avoid vitriol as it unfolds. A reasoned examination of the evidence will best serve us, and everyone should acknowledge in advance that we bring a variety of assumptions to the table with us in this debate.

There is one point in John’s response that I would like to address presently. Early on the Superintendent says:

More important, however, is the larger implication I take from Mr. Bedrick’s thesis: that private school choice advocates in America, Mr. Bedrick among them, have failed to establish a coherent, prevailing belief system about the role of private schools in providing an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth.

Towards the end he says:

Absent better systemic answers than those offered by ideologues, publicly funded private school choice for all children will continue to be more of a factor in legislative debates and scholarly conferences than in the homes and neighborhoods of America’s youth.

The use of the word “measured” in the first statement brings up the observer effect from physics: the act of observing can in itself change what you attempt to measure. People can have honest disagreements over how much private school participation we are willing to sacrifice for what type of measurement, but let’s not start with the premise that the answer is “whatever it takes no matter what.” For almost going on two decades now for instance the McKay Scholarship program has reigned as the largest voucher program in the country. Would I prefer having an evaluation component of some sort? Yes-I’m pretty confident that we would learn valuable information. Would I be willing to do it if a large portion of participating schools were likely to pass on participating? No- I would be content to let parents work out testing on an individual basis with their schools.

In other words I want to prioritize the needs of parents over my needs as an advocate.

On the issue of scale and having a plan, I think we could have a long debate about this, but ultimately I don’t think it is necessary. I think that the sort of effort that Superintendent White is referencing may relate to the sort of private philanthropic efforts we see going on in the New Orleans charter school space. An unexplored possibility to consider by the way, is that the Herculean private human capital efforts we see going on in the charter space may have eclipsed the private school sector. How many rational actors would open a private as opposed to a charter school in New Orleans given the totality of policy and private philanthropic efforts? But I digress…

The reason I don’t think we need to spend too much time debating the sort of genuinely heroic efforts we see going on in the New Orleans charter space: I don’t think we can afford to scale them. You don’t see it discussed often, but ah, well, the cost per teacher placement from sources like Teach for America has not been going down. Quite the opposite from what I understand. Don’t get me wrong- I love TFA kids and I fully support the efforts of philanthropists in rebuilding the New Orleans education system. I simply have my doubts that our collective philanthropic efforts could have handled a district the size of Houston had Katrina veered that way, much less the rest of the country.

This raises the question- can we achieve “an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth” without these sort of efforts? If you care about the disadvantaged, the answer had better be “yes” because otherwise they will be remain holding the short end of the stick in life. To answer the question, I decided to examine the NAEP results and trends for low-income kids in the relatively regulated and highly philanthropic supported charter sector in Louisiana with similar kids in the Wild West and (relatively) lightly supported Arizona charter sector.

To get as close to apples to apples as possible, I compared the results for Free and Reduced lunch eligible students in general education programs attending charter schools in both states. The general education focus is due to possible differences in participation among ELL and SPED students in the two states. Louisiana has a comprehensive effort to support charters and to shut them down when they under-perform. If you see race as a proxy for other unmeasured factors etc. the average low-income charter child in Arizona is likely to be Hispanic, whereas I’m guessing in Louisiana they are more likely to be Black. Every state has their story about how their poor kids are the toughest to educate in the world (here is AZ it is “they come up North and they don’t even read Spanish!”) but I view all such claims as suspect-poor kids are tough to educate everywhere.

In terms of charter sectors, Arizona has an almost entirely decentralized process of school creation, and the only people making plans are those opening schools and parents seeking places for their child- no common app, the state rarely shuts a school down. etc. We have some TFA kids but I met more of them in a visit to the French Quarter than in 13 years of living here in AZ. The West in short doesn’t get any wilder.

The NAEP will only provide data for this comparison between 2013 and 2015, and I make no claims regarding this being a definitive comparison, merely suggestive. So with those caveats: here is what the gains look like across all four NAEP exams for FRL general ed charter students:

AZLA

So both sectors did well in generating gains overall for low-income kids- so bully for them. Louisiana charters enjoyed larger gains in 4th grade gains, but Arizona charters enjoyed a still larger advantage at the 8th grade level. If we look at the overall scores for these students rather than the gains, we see no decisive advantage for either state.

AZLA2

Those who care about the interests of poor children should celebrate the ability of Arizona charter schools to deliver big gains for low-income kids. They did it without direction from the state and without massive support from philanthropists. This is to be celebrated in large part because we don’t have enough philanthropy to do New Orleans everywhere even if we wanted to.

So- as one of the school choice Jeffersonian types, I’ll address Superintendent White’s point about a plan squarely. What is my plan? On charter schools, my plan is to let ‘er rip. It’s working out a splendid fashion and I love it when a plan comes together…

On private choice, I’d like to see a system that gives a meaningfully higher level of public subsidy to disadvantaged children (low-income, ELL, SPED) with some light touch academic transparency measures (NNR testing required by students rather than schools, academic studies, parent surveys) and then let that rip too. The great virtue of this plan in my view is that it doesn’t require me or anyone else to manage or direct it.

In other words, I think school choice technocrats should aspire to be in control of as little as possible. The NBER study reinforces my view of its desirability.

UPDATE: Jason’s response to Superintendent White is up at Ed Next


The No-Stats All Star Retires

June 18, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Shane Battier, the man dubbed by Michael Lewis as the No-Stats All Star– has announced his retirement from the NBA at age 35 to take a college basketball analyst position with ESPN.  Battier never looked like much on the stat-sheet but when the statisticians got around to crunching the NBA they discovered that all he does is little things-like help his team win basketball games.  Battier-type “White Space” employees raise important questions about how to approach employee evaluation including teachers.

John White and I spoke on a panel together a few years ago and the topic of evaluation came up.  I sounded a note of caution but Superintendent White saw my bet and raised me by opining that we were in danger of making a fetish out of value added scores and that ultimately we should rely upon the professional judgement of administrators informed by data rather than merely the data itself. At least that is how I interpreted what White said, and if so, I agree with him.

Greg has been saying all along that ultimately this system requires choice.  Give parents meaningful choice, let Principals hire their own teams, have Superintendents evaluate Principals on the basis of the health of their school.  This strikes me as not only as the best way to do teacher eval, but also the only way to create a system to recognize the value of woefully under-appreciated highly effective instructors.  To choose another sports analogy developed by Michael Lewis, the pay of Left-Tackles took off after the advent of free-agency in the NFL.  Once a true market for players had been established, guys who had the skills to block a Lawrence Taylor found themselves in high demand, whereas the old system kept their compensation under wraps.

There are only a few states where we might be inching towards meaningful levels of parental choice, probably fewer still if any where the school leader has anything approaching a free hand to choose their own team. Mechanistic programs that attempt to identify and reward and remove instructors will be better than a unconditional tenure and dance of the lemons system but will never match a system in which trained professionals with healthy incentives exercise professional discretion. The Heat for instance hired Battier because they understood that there is a great deal more going on than the stat sheet, and won a couple of championships.

The primordial soup is slowwwwly starting to bubble…

Now imagine a burnt out and disgruntled Charles Barkley riding the bench of the Heat as a player in 2014 drawing a bigger salary than LeBron because the coaches can’t make best use of their salary cap…


John White Walks into the Lion’s Den

August 2, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Great article about John White’s plans for public forums to discuss Louisiana’s education reforms. In so doing, White is following in the footsteps of Indiana’s Tony Bennett, who faced the public and his critics in public forums repeatedly. Dr. Bennett let Indiana’s reform critics take their best shot at him over and over again, all the while explaining the rationale for the bold package of reforms.

After explaining his reasoning and providing his evidence, Dr. Bennett often said “This is what we believe and this is our plan. What do you believe and what is your plan?”

I don’t know whether Dr. Bennett changed the minds of the uber-reactionaries in his audiences or not, but he earned respect by giving his opponents the chance to take him on. This is the type of leadership the reform movement needs, and I commend John White for providing it in Louisiana. The Advocate seems to agree:

So we hope that White keeps up his efforts to communicate with the local systems that educate the vast majority of Louisiana students. The local boards may not become believers in the entire Jindal catechism, but the changes are coming — and those that can’t be avoided must be implemented with the interests of students in mind, once the political slogans have faded from the headlines.


John White in the Baton Rouge Advocate

March 29, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The battle for education reform in Louisiana is fully engaged. Governor Bobby Jindal has gone all-in for tenure reform and increased parental choice. State Superintendent John White wrote the following letter to the editor, published in the Baton Rouge Advocate. It is one of the most direct and effective rebuttals of the Ravitch-zombie mindset I have seen:

The Advocate has recently published several letters to the editor on public education. I have to say as an educator, I’m disappointed with the prevailing tone and content of those letters opposing change.

Here are some passages that illustrate a common thread:

“We, the public school teachers of East Baton Rouge schools, can’t educate children who don’t want to be educated. We can’t educate children whose parents don’t care and are not involved.”

“ … the state is going to require that very poor students take the ACT … . The weaker of these students are not college-bound students who have no intention to attend college, yet he has to be compared and compete.”

And one writer simply stated, “Poverty is a significant factor affecting academic scores,” leaving it at that — as if that absolves us of any responsibility to educate the child.

I’m so disappointed in these comments for two reasons. First, they betray a mindset that forsakes the American dream. They show a sad belief among some that poverty is destiny in America, defying our core value that any child, no matter race, class or creed, can be the adult he or she dreams of being. Yes, poverty matters. Yes, it impacts learning. And that fact should only embolden us to do everything we can to break the cycle of poverty so another generation of children does not face the same challenges.

Second, and perhaps more disappointing, is that these letters were written by professional educators. The media would have you think that most educators oppose change. Even The Advocate editorial board used the number of teachers showing up at the Capitol during a weekday as evidence to prove teachers’ collective objection to change.

But as an educator, I can tell you that our views are as varied as are the individuals in the profession. There are 50,000 teachers in this state, and it demeans them to say that the loud voices of those who chose to take a day off speak for the majority, who spent that day working with children. It further demeans them when they are represented in these pages as excuse-makers who see poverty as only a barrier to success and not as the reason to do the job in the first place.

Not all teachers support all of the proposals. Some support none. But all deserve better representation in these pages. Our teachers are soldiers in the fight for social justice in America. As with all soldiers, they joined the battle for different reasons and have different stories to tell. But they have not given up on winning. That’s the real story. The media should start printing it.

John White

state superintendent of education

Baton Rouge