Charter or District in Milwaukee?

May 14, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last year John Witte, Pat Wolf, Alicia Dean and Devin Carlson found evidence of significantly stronger academic gains for charter school students over district students in Milwaukee using the state data. This got me to wondering what the 2011 Trial Urban NAEP scores would look like between MPS and Milwaukee charter schools. Now, mind you that this chart doesn’t control for much, only comparing FRL eligible students in the charters and the districts. That’s okay with me, as Witte, Wolf, Dean and Carlson have admirably performed that task on three years of data with a promise of a fourth year in 2012 report. Also there is always at least a bit of sampling error with NAEP, yadda yadda ectera.

Do the NAEP tests tell the same broad story as the Witte et. al study? Judge for yourself:

 Those look like differences likely to survive the introduction of a whole bunch of control variables.


More on Milwaukee School Choice Research Results

March 5, 2012

I wrote last week about the release of the final research results from Milwaukee’s school choice program.  On Sunday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel devoted its entire editorial page to a discussion of those results.  Check out the succinct summary of the findings by Patrick Wolf and John Witte.

Also be sure to check out the response from the head of the teachers union, Bob Peterson.  His rebuttal consists of noting that many students switch sectors, moving from choice to traditional public schools as well as in the opposite direction.  He thinks that this undermines the validity of Wolf and Witte’s graduation rate analysis, but he fails to understand that the researchers used an intention to treat approach that attributes outcomes to students’ original selection of sector regardless of their switching.  And on the special education claim he simply reiterates the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) faulty effort to equate the percentage of students who are entitled to accommodations on the state test with the percentage of students who have disabilities.

For more on how DPI under-stated the rate of disabilities in the Milwaukee choice program by between 400% and 900%, check out the new article Wolf, Fleming, and Witte just published in Education Next.  It’s not only an excellent piece of research detective work on how DPI arrived at such an erroneous claim, but it is also a useful warning to anyone who thinks that government issued claims provide the authoritative answer on research questions.  Government agencies, like DPI, can lie and distort as much or more than any special interest group.  They just do it with your tax dollars and in your name.


MPS Takes “Standing in the Schoolhouse Door” to a Whole New Level

May 31, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over the weekend, John Witte and Pat Wolf had a compelling article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel summarizing the real (as opposed to media-reported) results of the Milwaukee voucher program research being conducted by the School Choice Demonstration Project.

And then they dropped a bomb:

Recently, our research team conducted site visits to high schools in Milwaukee to examine any innovative things they are doing to educate disadvantaged children. The private high schools of the choice program graciously opened their doors to us and allowed us full access to their schools. Although several MPS principals urged us to come see their schools as well, the central administration at MPS prohibited us having any further contact with those schools as they considered our request for visits. We have not heard from them in weeks.

Our report on the private schools we visited, which will offer a series of best practices regarding student dropout prevention, will be released this fall. Should MPS choose to open the doors of their high schools to us, we will be able to learn from their approaches as well. [ea]

MPS opposition to vouchers takes standing in the schoolhouse door to a whole new level.


What Doesn’t Work Clearinghouse

October 4, 2010

The U.S. Department of Education’s “What Works Clearinghouse” (WWC) is supposed to adjudicate the scientific validity of competing education research claims so that policymakers, reporters, practitioners, and others don’t have to strain their brains to do it themselves.  It would be much smarter for folks to exert the mental energy themselves rather than trust a government-operated truth committee to sort things out for them.

WWC makes mistakes, is subject to political manipulation, and applies arbitrary standards.  In short, what WWC says is not The Truth.  WWC is not necessarily less reliable than any other source that claims to adjudicate The Truth for you.  Everyone may make mistakes, distort results, and apply arbitrary standards.  The problem is that WWC has the official endorsement of the U.S. Department of Education, so many people fail to take their findings with the same grains of salt that they would to the findings of any other self-appointed truth committee.  And with the possibility that government money may be conditioned on WWC endorsement, WWC’s shortcomings are potentially more dangerous.

I could provide numerous examples of WWC’s mistakes, political manipulation, and arbitrariness, but for the brevity of a blog post let me illustrate my point with just a few.

First, WWC was sloppy and lazy in its recent finding that the Milwaukee voucher evaluation, led by my colleagues Pat Wolf and John Witte, failed to meet “WWC evidence standards” because “the authors do not provide evidence that the subsamples of voucher recipients and public school comparison students analyzed in this study were initially equivalent in math and reading achievement.” WWC justifies their conclusion with a helpful footnote that explains: “At the time of publication, the WWC had contacted the corresponding author for additional information regarding the equivalence of the analysis samples at baseline and no response had been received.”

But if WWC had actually bothered to read the Milwaukee reports they would have found the evidence of equivalence they were looking for.  The Milwaukee voucher evaluation that Pat and John are leading has a matched-sample research design.  In fact, the research team produced an entire report whose purpose was to demonstrate that the matching had worked and produced comparable samples. In addition, in the 3rd Year report the researchers devoted an entire section (see appendix B) to documenting the continuing equivalence of the matched samples despite some attrition of students over time.

Rather than reading the reports and examining the evidence on the comparability of the matched samples, WWC decided that the best way to determine whether the research met their standards for sample equivalence was to email John Witte and ask him.  I guess it’s all that hard work that justifies the multi-million dollar contract Mathematica receives from the U.S. Department of Education to run WWC.

As it turns out, Witte was traveling when WWC sent him the email.  When he returned he deleted their request along with a bunch of other emails without examining it closely.  But WWC took Witte’s non-response as confirmation that there was no evidence demonstrating the equivalence of the matched samples.  WWC couldn’t be bothered to contact any of the several co-authors.  They just went for their negative conclusion without further reading, thought, or effort.

I can’t prove it (and I’m sure my thought-process would not meet WWC standards), but I’ll bet that if the subject of the study was not vouchers, WWC would have been sure to read the reports closely and make extra efforts to contact co-authors before dismissing the research as failing to meet their standards.  But voucher researchers have grown accustomed to double-standards when others assess their research.  It’s just amazingly ironic to see the federally-sponsored entity charged with maintaining consistent and high standards fall so easily into their own double-standard.

Another example — I served on a WWC panel regarding school turnarounds a few years ago.  We were charged with assessing the research on how to successfully turnaround a failing school.  We quickly discovered that there was no research that met WWC’s standards on that question.  I suggested that we simply report that there is no rigorous evidence on this topic.  The staff rejected that suggestion, emphasizing that the Department of Education needed to have some evidence on effective turnaround strategies.

I have no idea why the political needs of the Department should have affected the truth committee in assessing the research, but it did.  We were told to look at non-rigorous research, including case-studies, anecdotes, and our own experience to do our best in identifying promising strategies.  It was strange — there were very tight criteria for what met WWC standards, but there were effectively no standards when it came to less rigorous research.  We just had to use our professional judgment.

We ended up endorsing some turnaround strategies (I can’t even remember what they were) but we did so based on virtually no evidence.  And this was all fine as long as we said that the conclusions were not based on research that met WWC standards.  I still don’t know what would have been wrong with simply saying that research doesn’t have much to tell us about effective turnaround strategies, but I guess that’s not the way truth committees work.  Truth committees have to provide the truth even when it is false.

The heart of the problem is that science has never depended on government-run truth committees to make progress.  It is simply not possible for the government to adjudicate the truth on disputed topics because the temptation to manipulate the answer or simply to make sloppy and lazy mistakes is all too great.  This is not a problem that is particular to the Obama Administration or to Mathematica.  My second example was from the Bush Administration when WWC was run by AIR.

The hard reality is that you can never fully rely on any authority to adjudicate the truth for you.  Yes, conflicting claims can be confusing.  Yes, it would be wonderfully convenient if someone just sorted it all out for us.  But once we give someone else the power to decide the truth on our behalf, we are prey to whatever distortions or mistakes they may make.  And since self-interest introduces distortions and the tendency to make mistakes, the government is a particularly untrustworthy entity to rely upon when it comes to government policy.

Science has always made progress by people sorting through the mess of competing, often technical, claims.  When official truth committees have intervened, it has almost always hindered scientific progress.  Remember that  it was the official truth committee that determined that Galileo was wrong.  Truth committees have taken positions on evolution, global warming, and a host of other controversial topics.  It simply doesn’t help.

We have no alternative to sorting through the evidence and trying to figure these things out ourselves.  We may rely upon the expertise of others in helping us sort out competing claims, but we should always do so with caution, since those experts may be mistaken or even deceptive.  But when the government starts weighing in as an expert, it speaks with far too much authority and can be much more coercive.  A What Works Clearinghouse simply doesn’t work.