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In her 2010 polemic, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch has praise and criticism for KIPP charter schools. On the one hand, she recognizes the organization improves scores for students. On the other hand, she credits this success, in part, on the schools ability to kick out hard to educate students:

…KIPP schools often have a high attrition rate. Apparently many students and their parents are unable or unwilling to comply with KIPP’s stringent demands. A 2008 study of KIPP schools in San Francisco’s Bay Area found that 60 percent of the students who started in fifth grade were gone by the end of eigth grade. The students who quit tended to be lower-performing students. The exit of such a large propotion of low-performing students –for whatever reason- makes it difficult to analys the performance of KIPP students in higher grades. In addition, teacher turnover is high at KIPP schools as well as other charter schools, no doubt because of the unusually long hours.  Thus, while the KIPP schools obtain impressive results for the students who remain enrolled for four years, the high levels of student attrition and teacher turnover raise questions about the applicability of the KIPP model to the regular public schools.

Note that teacher turnover in-and-of-itself is considered a problem. I find it baffling to consider success alongside high turnover as evidence of a limitation of the sucees rather than as evidence that turnover is not necessarily a problem.

The italicized portion of her quote is of particular interest, since it is directly contradicted by a study from Mathematica Policy Institute that showed that KIPP improves test scores for students that ever attend KIPP, including those that leave early. This is a direct contradiction of her claim.

As she does throughout the book, Ravitch drives the point home with a rhetorical flourish befitting of a speech at an NEA pep rally, lamenting the unfair advantages that charter schools have, and how easy that makes it for them compared to the underdog public schools:

Regular public schools must accept everyone who applies, including the students who leave KIPP schools.   They can’t throw out the kids who do not work hard or the kids who have many absences or the kids who are disrespectful or the kids whose parents are absent or inattentive. They have to find ways to educate even those students who don’t want to be there. That’s the dilemma of public education.

Ravitch creates the image of KIPP schools taking better students from public schools, and simply kicking out bad students, sending them back into the public school system. This negative model of charter success is an important theme in the book. However, another recent study by Mathematica Policy Institute shows that her claims here are also false. They found that students leave KIPP schools at the same rate as they do for nearby public schools. In fact, for black and hispanic students, the attrition rates for KIPP were lower.

Ravitch also credit’s the lottery admissions for KIPP’s success. Her argument is that

“Like other successful charter schools, KIPP admits students by lottery; by definition, only the most motivated families apply for a slot. Charters with lotteries tend to attract the best students in poor neighborhoods, leaving the public schools in the same neighborhoods worse off because they have lost some of their top-performing students. They also tend to enroll fewer of the students with high needs – English-language learners and those needing special educaiton.”

This complaint puzzles me. Ravitch once was a supporter of charter schools. But if lotteries are “by definition” going to cream skim and advantage charter schools, how did she ever support them? Her argument here is definitional, and not a matter of data. When criticized for changing positions on education reform Ravitch likes to quote Keynes who, perhaps apocryphally, said “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”, but have the definitions changed as well?

Furthermore, the Mathematica study found that KIPP did not admit the “best students”. On average, KIPP entrants were “not more advantaged than other students in their communities, as  measured by poverty and prior achievement levels”. For instance, 84% of students who attended the sample of KIPP schools qualified for a free lunch program, compared to 64% in KIPP host districts, and 72% in the elementary schools that send any children to KIPP. They enroll more minorities, and they enroll students with lower test scores than the district average and the same as the average for the public schools that KIPP students came from.

They do find that KIPP tends to enroll less ESL students and students with disabilities, but this is not the same as admitting the “best students”. Ravitch clearly agrees with this, as you can see in the quote above she includes the complaint that KIPP doesn’t admit enough ESL and disabled students as distinct from and in addition to the complaint about only letting in “the best students”.

These results are important because if Ravitch claims that KIPP cream skimming higher acheiving students makes public schools worse off, then the fact that they take lower performing students must make public schools worse off. This doesn’t just remove a complaint about charters then, it actually represents a benefit to the public school system. This positive impact of more charters and choice on public schools is reinforced by studies that have shown public schools improve in response to more competition, an entire vein of literature ignored in Ravitch’s book.

These are clear examples of the facts disproving Ravitch’s claims. Will future editions of her book correct this? Will she call attention to this fact and publicly reverse her opinion of KIPP?

A common, although misleading, refrain heard from education reform critics is that charter schools on average do no better on standardized tests than public schools. Less commonly discussed is the impact on other, non-test outcomes. A paper (working version) in the most recent Journal of Labor Economics by Kevin Booker and Brian Gill from Mathematica, Tim Sass from Florida State, and Ron Zimmer from Vanderbilt, looks at how attending a charter schools affects the probability of graduating high school and attending college for a sample of students from Chicago and Florida.

An important question in the literature is the extent to which selection bias is a problem. Do charter school students have different outcomes than public school students because the charters educate them somehow better or worse, or is it because people who decide to go to charter schools are systematically different than those who don’t? In order to control for this they look at the sub-group of students who attended a charter middle school, and compare outcomes for those who went onto a charter high school to those who went on to a public high school. The idea is that selection bias shouldn’t be an issue between those who are already attending a charter school, because as charter school attendees they should be similar in terms of whatever unobservable variables lead to charter attendance.

They find that in both Florida and Chicago, attending a charter high school increased graduation and college attendance rates. In Chicago, students were 7% more likely to graduate from high school if they attended a charter, in Florida it was 12% to 15%. Charters increased the probability of attending college by 8% to 10% in both Florida and Chicago. The authors argue that these results are consistent with the studies on the effects of attending a Catholic school,  and a recent D.C. voucher experiment, both of which have been shown to improve educational attainment.  Consistent with the literature on the affects of charter attendance on test scores, they find that the impact in Florida is stronger in urban areas.

These are important results to keep in mind. Given education reform critics skepticism of standardized testing, I expect results like this will receive more weight for them than studies that look only at test scores.

In the room for debate on “Why Blame the Teachers?” a high school teacher offers this:

“…college graduates are not going to be attracted to a profession that only encourages short stints. The majority of teachers did not choose their profession because of the vacation time, or the salary, or because they thought it would be easy. They chose teaching because they wanted to make a difference in children’s lives in the long term. Those teachers that entered the profession for the more mundane reasons don’t actually stay for very long.”

This very well may be true. This means that either teacher quality will suffer as a result of getting rid of LIFO or school will have to pay teachers more to compensate them for the now riskier profession. On the other hand, a little bit of this may be worth it. If this means on the rare occasion when layoffs happen they go to worst 5% of teachers (worst obviously measured with some error) then it may be worth the slight drop in overall teacher quality that results. After all, the net effect on teacher quality will be the decrease in quality from risk aversion but also the increase in quality by trying to get rid of the worst instead of just the newest teachers. But the fact of the matter is, whether LIFO or some other layoff policy is best may very well depend on local labor markets and other factors. Sure, if you have to pick one policy for all schools, LIFO is probably not the way to go. But the need to mandate policies like this at broad levels is one of the problem with the public education system: it does not allow flexibility and adaptation.

The real problem isn’t deciding which layoff policy to use. After all, the right one today may be the wrong in five years. And the right one in Town A may be the wrong one in Town B 30 miles away. The real problem is assuring that the people who run schools have the freedom to choose policies that best cater to their specific local labor market, and that they have the incentives to do so in a way that maximizes the educational value of taxpayers money. If schools are allowed freedom and accountability, then if a school gets rid of LIFO but the best employees value it, then the other school down the road can adopt it and lure talent away, and if the loss in talent causes the schools quality to suffer then they will be pressured to adopt it again.

It may also be the case that with the threat of change in the air a school system that promises stability will be able to lure the most talented teachers, and that a school that can promise tenure for life, LIFO, and no standardized testing will outperform all the rest in some places.

The problem, I think, comes because we can not provide local monopolies like school districts freedom without accountability. Yet without freedom, we must centrally plan. The education reform movement is hard at work finding good ways to measure success, and determine universal and objective rules for how people should be hired and fired, and figuring out what kinds of certifications should be required, etc. The other camp, (I don’t know what to call them but surely they don’t wish to be called anti-reform) scoffs at how difficult this proves and instead thinks we should have… um, smaller classrooms? Actually I’m not really sure what the alternative is other than to convince people of the limitations of education and talk them into applauding the system that we have.

While I applaud the work of the reformers and think it is a drastic improvement over the status quo, I am increasingly worried they may not be able to find the perfect set of rules that allows centrally planned education systems to succeed at the varied and difficult tasks we require of it, and that anti-reform critics may be, in part, correct. Unfortunately for anti-reformers, this does not mean we simply learn to love the status quo, but instead we need the freedom and experimentation that markets and choice provide. This doesn’t necessitate a fully privatized education system, and can include charters, public school choice, and vouchers. It’s also important to remember that, as Rick Hess emphasizes, choice by itself also does not guarantee success. But competition can allow reformers and anti-reformers to test their policy recommendations out and see what works, and it can allow space where the right rules for the right places can evolve.

I hope the reformers succeed in developing better measures and policies so that public education can thrive. I sincerely do. In the meantime, we should be continuing to push for more choice and competition, and work hard to understand the conditions under which that can be successful.

In the most recent National Affairs, Frederick Hess has a very important piece on education reform that everyone should read. His thesis is simple: school choice proponents have focused too much on simply getting more choice in education, and they should be emphasizing the importance of competition. This has led to exaggerated beliefs about what choice alone can accomplish. Here is how he puts it:

The biggest mistake pro-market school reformers have made can thus be put simply: They have mistaken choice for competition. The conviction that school choice constitutes, by itself, a market solution has too often led reformers to skip past the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities that choice-based reform can provide. Choice is merely part of the market equation; equally crucial are the requirements that market conditions permit high-quality or cost-effective suppliers to flourish, that regulation not smother new entrants, and that rules not require inefficient practices or subsidize also-rans.

This is absolutely correct, and as he points out, nobody would argue that choice by itself would constitute sufficient or desirable deregulation in any other government monopolized industry. So following his advice, what can we say about when charter schools work and when they don’t?

Ironically, I think there are a lot of ignored lessons in the charter school study which has produced the number one charter school talking point of the day, “charter schools perform no better on average than public schools”. Read any newspaper article on charters and this fact is highly likely to be there. As I’ve argued before, there are a lot of important truths lying beneath the surface of this quote that I think most people who say it miss. In the study this quote comes from, in some states charter schools perform way better than public schools. Should not the primary lesson from this be that some states have it right, and those that don’t should learn from them? The authors of the study this fact comes from note this fact, pointing out that “results vary strongly by state and are shown to be influenced in significant ways by several characteristics of state charter school policies”

They found three lessons about policies that affect performance:

1. States that have limits on the number of charter schools that can operate performed worse than those that had no caps

2. States with multiple entities that can authorize charters did worse

3. States that allowed appeals to be made in the application or renewal of charter school authorization did better than those that did not

The impacts are significant as well. The study does not say which states do and do not have charter caps but the impact is large enough that removing the cap would make charters not underperform public schools in all but Texas, New Mexico (for math), and Ohio (for math). Again, it’s not clear which states have the cap so we can’t say removing it would actually accomplish this, but the impact of the effect is large enough that it could.

Another important policy implication of this study is that charter schools do outperform public schools nationally for poor students and english language learners. So anytime someone provides you with the quote that “charter schools perform no better on average than public schools”, the response should always be this quote from the study:

In our nationally  pooled  sample, two subgroups fare better in charters than in the traditional system: students in poverty and ELL students.

For a lot of other relevant information about the CREDO study I have a much longer more detailed post here.

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