The Michigan Charter Lion Sleeps Happily Tonight with a Belly Full of Unjust Criticisms

July 3, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The world has a funny way of not behaving according to expectations. Michigan charters came under withering fire last year despite the fact that basically every bit of formal research available found that they produce better learning gains. Never you mind that whole “outcomes” business, Michigan charters were “Wild West” in nature and thus not to be trusted. Louisiana charters have been touted as a national model- properly gardened and/or quarterbacked etc. Some but certainly not all fans of Louisiana charter policies were also critics of Michigan charter policies.

The chart below constitutes the longest period that NAEP has data for LA charters on all four tests. Instead of the customary state flags, we’ll use the NFL logos of the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints:

Back in 2011 Louisiana charters tied Michigan charters on one of the four tests and had higher scores on the other three. The 2017 scores for MI charters on 4m, 8m, 4r and 8r were: 232, 272, 218 and 259 respectively. The 2017 scores for LA charters on the same exams for Louisiana: 214, 264, 197 and 254. Whether based upon scores or over time improvement, it seems odd indeed to hold that Michigan has awful policies to avoid at all cost while simultaneously holding that the rest of the country should drop what they are doing to emulate Louisiana.

The NAPCS dashboard that keeps track of such things is currently down but last I checked both LA and MI charters had tough student demographic profiles. We cannot know what role average school quality plays in these trends, so it is barely possible that statistical noise is consistently bouncing the way of Michigan charters over and over again (the 2015 exams also favor them) and consistently bounce against Louisiana charters repeatedly (the 2015 results were also trending down). Multiple formal studies of state scores in Michigan showing positive results leans heavily against such an already unlikely conclusion, as do similar negative trends in state charter scores in Louisiana.

I’m open to the fact that the world is complex. Perhaps there is some complicated reason why Michigan charters appear to be improving steadily, and some equally complex reason why Louisiana charter scores appear have declined. Just maybe Michigan charters deserved some of the criticisms they received, and perhaps Louisiana charter policies are not quite as terrible as the state and NAEP scores would seem to indicate. Occam’s razor may cut against such explanations, but no one is making an effort to offer them at all.

Using the Jonathan Haidt framework, my elephant is inclined to believe that “Wild West” is under-rated, and technocratic gardening is over-rated. My elephant believes that like the Dauphin of Shakespeare’s Henry V, opponents of relatively free-wheeling charter sectors “come over us with our wilder days, not measuring what use we made of them.” The rider of my elephant continues to bring me further reasons to believe this. He’s good at that. He’s also pretty good at finding flaws in the arguments of opponents, but Haidt has persuaded me that he is not to be fully trusted.

I could be wrong, but if so it will require the hate Michigan/love Louisiana tribe to poke holes in my theory/evidence as solid reasoning is a communal activity, not to be left to mere individuals.





Wild West Podcast

February 7, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yours truly joins Marty West for the Ed Next Podcast on charter schools in the Wild West. My favorite bit is our discussion of Marty’s study using 2012 data showing meh results for Arizona charters. I’m confident that this result was accurate. In fact the 2013 NAEP also showed lower 8th grade scores in both Math and Reading for AZ charters than AZ districts. What gives?

In 2012 the Philadelphia Eagles went 4-12, but earlier this week they won the Superbowl. This doesn’t shock us much in sports as we understand that player turnover in sport is high and one year’s team can be very different from the previous year’s squad. Likewise in a charter sector as dynamic as Arizona’s you literally have had hundreds of charters open and close since 2012. Also during this period you had a large number of young schools mature (the survivors the crucible of their formative stage). The Great Recession was a period of rapid charter school growth in Arizona as many high quality CMOs seized the opportunity to obtain bargain priced properties. That also however meant lots of young schools going through their shakedown cruise periods.

If the Eagles had been playing a large number of rookies in 2012, their record would look bad, but come back a few years later and those former rookies have grown into grizzled vets. The guys who couldn’t cut it are off the squad. So too in 2015 Arizona charter students crushed the ball on all six NAEP exams, and their AZMerit scores have improved subsequently improved in both 2016 and 2017 along with the scores of districts.


I wish I had seen the above Brookings map before writing the Ed Next piece, as it kind of sums up the four corner charter phenomenon in a nice visual. The higher percentage of kids that have access the charters, the more likely it is that your suburban districts will participate in open enrollment. We you have access to suburban (and/or private schools) your willingness as a parent to put up with a dysfunctional charter school moves closer to zero and they get very quick on the draw. Result: Yippie kai yay!