I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part III

UPDATE: I see Dmitri is retweeting all the odd-numbered parts of this series (his), but not the even-numbered parts (mine). OK... but do yourself a favor: read my responses. See for yourself if Dmitri's arguments hold up.

I feel quite confident that you'll find he doesn't have much cause to believe he got the better of me in this exchange. But you be the judge.

Dmitri Mehlhorn and I continue our debate about charter schools below. In case you missed it, here's Part I by Dmitri, and here's my reply in Part II. I'll have my reply in Part IV up within a few days; stand by...

I also asked Dmitri to write a short bio of himself just for this series:

"Dmitri Mehlhorn is a Senior Fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute. He writes frequently about education, including his own time as a public school student and parent. He is a co-founder and Board Member of StudentsFirst, which lobbies opposite teachers' unions on policies regarding choice and data. He is also a seed investor; however, his firm Vidinovo refrains from K-12 investments to avoid conflict of interest."

One last thing: Blogger is not very good at translating formatting from MS Word to HTML. I tried to clean it up, but if it looks a little odd, that's not on Dmitiri; it's on me. I'll keep trying to make it as readable as possible.

ADDING: Here is an index for the entire exchange:

Part I: Mehlhorn's opener.

Part II: My reply.

Part III: Mehlhorn's response.

Part IV: My second reply.

Part V: Mehlhorn's second response.

Part VI: My final reply.

* * *

Episode III: The Return of the Charters

Do charter schools help kids learn?

I believe yes, and Jersey Jazzman (Mark Weber) believes no. We mostly agree on the basic facts, and disagree about the conclusions. As Jazzman wrote to me: “Almost everything you say is factually correct; however … you arrive at conclusions that simply are not warranted.” 

So what now?

At this point, we need to review the burden of proof in education policy, and then we need to review the evidence.

In education policy debates, who should decide?

If Jazzman and I, as proxies for the broader policy debate, agree that charters deliver better results, but cannot agree on whether they are “better enough,” how should our impasse be resolved?

Jazzman is refreshingly transparent: “the burden of proof remains on those who make an affirmative case for charter proliferation, and it always will.” This answer, while representative of reform skeptics, seems unmoored from the principles of American public education.

Parents seek freedom to make choices for their kids. A recent poll of parents found that two thirds of parents say “public charter schools offer parents in low-income communities options for quality schools that would otherwise be inaccessible to them” — and the percentages are even higher for Black and Latino parents. Parents with resources buy houses near good schools, and deploy financial and social capital to navigate the school system. Parents facing residential segregation due to race and poverty do not have those luxuries. As a result, majorities of African American parents would not send their child to their closest public school if they had a choice. Nationally, more than one million applications are on charter wait lists (I don’t know how many parents that means, but even if every parent submitted 20 applications each, that’s still a lot of parents who have been denied their preference for their kids). In Jazzman’s home state, for instance, 75% of Newark’s kindergarten parents listed charter schools as their first choice.

This is personal. As I’ve written, my mom used her salary as a public teacher to buy me three years of private school, and then saved money to move to a better neighborhood. Those resources transformed my life trajectory, but not every family has them. Sally (a pseudonym) is an awesome kid from my daughter’s soccer league, whose parents have limited income and even less English. When the local school puts the wrong teacher in front of Sally, her parents will have no recourse. They might use buses to sneak Sally into a better zip code, but if they get caught they can go to jail. Without charters, they are stuck.

Let’s be blunt: policies that block charter growth in urban areas do not limit choices for affluent parents, but they overrule the wishes of many parents who face residential segregation. In constitutional law, a policy decision that has a disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics is subject to “strict scrutiny.” The evidence has to demonstrate a compelling public rationale for the policy, and the policy has to be crafted in the least-onerous possible fashion in terms of burdens on black and Hispanic families.

Given these dynamics, Jazzman needs to demonstrate a compelling goal that can only be achieved by blocking the growth of urban charters. This is the appropriate burden of proof as long as affluent parents exercise their own choices, and as long as there are wait lists full of disadvantaged families.

So what does the evidence actually say?

Fortunately for the purposes of clarity, Jazzman has already conceded enough to justify the elimination of policies that cap or prohibit charter growth. Let’s review his work.

(1) Jazzman says it’s just the good charter schools

Jazzman concedes the research from Mathematica and others that students who attend high-performing charter schools – such as KIPP and Achievement First – have better outcomes than students who apply to those schools but don’t win admissions in their lotteries. Jazzman dismisses these results by saying that those are just the good charter schools.
If he’s right, charter restrictions should stay in place for all charters that have not been validated by robust research. Validated charters should expand. Here in Virginia, my daughter’s friend Sally will have the option to attend KIPP schools. That is a huge relief for me, and I look forward to Jazzman’s support.

But is he right? Is it just a few good charters, or does a diverse charter sector also deliver? One of the studies he praised, Angrist and Dynarski (NBER 2013), concluded that at least in Boston, Jazzman is wrong. The NBER team did a deep dive into Boston charter high schools. Since studies show that high school interventions are usually “too late” to make a lifetime difference, this is a harsh condition for charter advocates. Against this tough hurdle, Angrist et al. conclude that charters deliver meaningful, statistically significant gains in life-altering outcomes like college attendance, in ways that are not attributable to peer effects or spending differences. In Boston, it’s not just a few brands, it’s the whole charter sector – and not by a little, but by a lot.

(2) Jazzman says the national averages are not “better enough”

The next fallback for Jazzman is to say that good charter cities like Boston are outliers, and that we should not extrapolate anything from the ever-more-frequent studies validating specific charter chains and cities. If we do that, Jazzman says the national results are “basically the same” as traditional schools (consistently better in a statistically significant fashion, but not “better enough”).

If he’s right, hurray! Great news for Sally. We agree that we should expand charters, but only using the same quality review system that authorizers use in cities like Los Angeles and Boston. Again, I look forward to Jazzman’s support here in Virginia.

But is he right? Is it just some cities, or is it a national story? Let’s go back to Stanford University CREDO’s 2015 study of 41 urban regions. Jazzman is right that results vary by city. For instance, charters in Newark, Detroit, and DC do better than traditional schools; in Las Vegas, Fort Worth, and West Palm Beach, charters do worse. But what is the aggregate result for students who otherwise don’t have choices? What about for students like Sally, who is in the cohort that CREDO refers to as Hispanic ELL?

Nationally, across both well-run and poorly run city charters, charters improve literacy and numeracy for Sally’s cohort by 0.1 standard deviations over their matched peers in traditional schools.

How big is one tenth of a standard deviation? Well, it depends upon judgment and context. I asked a physician about healthcare, and it turns out that the standard deviation of deaths due to cancer is 15 years. One tenth of a standard deviation improvement would extend cancer victims’ lives by 1.5 years. I asked an investor about the stock market, and it turns out that an investment of $100 in 2004 would be worth $232 at the end of 2014, but $275 if it beat the market by 0.1 standard deviations. That’s about 19% more money. Those differences are real.

In education, the most commonly used benchmark converts standard deviations into days of learning. By this method, CREDO shows charters providing Hispanic urban ELL students with effectively a 40% longer school year (72 days). Over the course of a K-12 career, that’s the equivalent of adding more than 5 extra years of schooling. That’s enough extra schooling for a four-year college plus a one-year masters program. Jazzman protests that this translation is imprecise, and he is correct. We don’t know for sure exactly 72 extra days of learning. It might only be 50 (just free junior college for Sally), or it might be 100 (throw in a free Ph.D). Either way, these are not small potatoes.

(3) Jazzman says it’s just skimming and suspensions

Finally, Jazzman argues that the superior results are the result of skimming and selective attrition. Correctly, he notes that CREDO’s data intermixes severe vs. non-severe SPED, as well as extreme vs. mild poverty. Students with severe SPED and in extreme poverty do not enter charter lotteries as frequently, thus charters may have an easier-to-teach cohort than their comparison traditional public schools. Additionally, although charters appear to have less overall attrition when dropouts and suspensions are included, charters do not always backfill seats opened up by departing students. Over time, this can make charters’ cohorts easier to teach. Finally, Jazzman notes that charter slots go to parents who applied, creating a more active parent community and thus again making the cohorts easier to teach. Although deep-dive studies of cities like Boston, and charters like Achievement First, rule out the idea that these so-called “peer effects” account for charters’ superior performance in those narrow areas, Jazzman argues that they explain the national gains found by CREDO.

If he’s right, we still get a policy that helps Sally: namely, we should expand charters only in those circumstances where charters demonstrate results above and beyond peer effects. To address Jazzman’s valid concerns, such charters should be required to backfill open seats; also, students facing severe SPED and extreme poverty should be recruited to enter charter lotteries. But this evidence does not charter caps and prohibitions. Those policies sacrifice Sally’s future to the speculative bureaucratic idea that her presence in a traditional school might somehow benefit some more-disadvantaged child, even as we admit that wealthier and whiter parents long ago refused to make such sacrifices of their own children.

But is he right? Jazzman’s claim that that charters succeed by skimming requires that, at some point, charters in a district must reach a “tipping point,” where they have skimmed so many good students that performance collapses in the remaining traditional public schools. Jazzman himself throws out a tipping point of 30%, which is a reasonable number given his theory.

So what happens when charters reach that threshold within a district? Jazzman hyperlinks to several studies, all of which relate to school finance rather than student outcomes. School finance is a different issue, relating to fixed costs, pensions, other overhead, declining enrollment (which can happen from charters but also for other reasons), and mismanagement. Even if Jazzman cited only studies of the highest quality, they don’t address the “peer effect” claim that is central to Jazzman’s critique of the CREDO numbers. To reiterate, the peer effect argument does NOT say that traditional schools will struggle to downsize their fixed costs as students leave to attend charters. (If that were the issue, we would expand charters and provide traditional schools with downsizing support as they shrink.) Rather, Jazzman’s claim is that as charters take the more motivated, easier kids, the remaining cohort will get harder and harder to teach. Rather than exploring fiscal issues, the test of Jazzman’s thesis comes from exploring student results. 

The results on this question are brutal for Jazzman’s claim. In Florida, traditional public school performance has improved as school choice has expanded. Ditto in Denver. Ditto in New York City, especially in the boroughs with the highest charter penetration. Ditto in the 2008 study I cited from Texas, which Jazzman agreed was well done. True, none of these examples meets Jazzman’s 30% threshold, but it should worry him that each result points in the opposite direction of what his theory predicts.

As for the tipping point, how does Jazzman explain away the studies of Washington, D.C., as summarized by Clinton Administration policy wonk David Osborne here? In D.C., two thirds of students attend a different school than their closest traditional school, and 44% of students attend charters. Both traditional and charter schools are improving dramatically, faster than any other city in the nation, and faster than any state other than Tennessee. And can we revisit the Doug Harris research regarding New Orleans? Even if we don’t use New Orleans as a template for the nation, the enormous gains from district-wide conversion to charters flatly disprove Jazzman’s theory that charter gains only happen by skimming.

* * *

There is a simple and powerful theory that explains all of this evidence. The theory is that government agencies work best when they put citizen choice ahead of bureaucratic monopoly. This is the lesson from the Nordic countries that were celebrated in the recent Democratic presidential debate, which have introduced competition into government agencies. For example, Sweden offers vouchers to enable parent choice, and local scholars there have shown that as independent schools gained scale, the entire system (independent and traditional) saw performance improve. The benefits of flexibility consistently outweigh the costs of duplicative overhead.

Ultimately, however, this theory is not as important as the parents of color, segregated residentially in urban areas, who seek choice. Their voices should arbitrate whether the evidence for charters is “good enough.” If we have to wait for teachers’ union officials, and the politicians beholden to them, to decide that charter results are “better enough” to justify further expansion? Well, as Upton Sinclair explained, those families will be waiting a long time.


CrunchyMama said...

"Do charter schools help kids learn?

I believe yes, and Jersey Jazzman (Mark Weber) believes no."

Wait, he said that he believe no? Where did he say that?

I'm pretty sure I read "I am not against charter schools. I started my K-12 career working in a charter. There is a place for "choice" in American education. There are some good charter schools out there and they should be commended for their work" in his first response to you.

You wouldn't be selectively misquoting, would you? And if so, is there anything else you're (maybe deliberately?) "misreading?"

Jack Covey said...

Ben Spielberg took on a central tenet of Melhorn's core beliefs. Corporate reformers and privatizers claim that, contrary to public school proponents' belief that public schools are underfunded, public schools are not in need of any extra funding. According to a recent article Melhorn wrote --- and that Spielberg refutes in his own article --- public schools are getting plenty of money just as it stands now.

BEN SPIELBERG: "(Melhorn's article's) actual argument – that 'America’s schools are not underfunded' – is completely false. This post corrects the record. Funding for public primary and secondary education in the United States is, in fact, inadequate and inequitable, and rectifying this problem should be a top priority for anyone who cares about improving our schools.

" ... "

"His article then proceeds to pull numbers from an OECD report to argue that Americans spend more on education than people in other countries, which, according to Mehlhorn, makes it 'clear that money isn’t the main problem in American public education.'

"The problem, however, is that the numbers in Mehlhorn’s piece are cherry-picked; they don’t actually speak to his argument about public K-12 education spending. As the OECD report notes, the figures Mehlhorn cites include public and private spending on primary, secondary, and tertiary education – that is, college – including but not limited to spending on transportation, meals, school health services, college dormitories, and “private spending on books and other school materials or private tutoring.”

"In general, the OECD data shouldn’t be used for cross-country comparisons; it doesn’t count spending the same way in each country and likely makes US spending appear larger relative to spending in other countries than it actually is. To the extent that the data can be illustrative, however, the appropriate approach would exclude college costs and private spending and focus on K-12 public school spending as a share of the economy (as opposed to using raw numbers; spending as a share of GDP provides a better indication of how much a country spends relative to what it can afford). Doing so (see Table B4.1 here) indicates that public spending on primary and secondary education in the United States, relative to GDP, is lower than spending as a share of the economy in Finland, the same as such spending in Korea, and slightly below the OECD average. Again, the data is flawed, but it likely provides a high-end estimate of United States education spending relative to such spending elsewhere.

Jack Covey said...



"Mehlhorn’s article also paints an incomplete picture of historical levels of education funding in the United States. The fact that K-12 spending has risen in inflation-adjusted dollar value terms over the past 45 years doesn’t tell us anything about whether school spending levels are sufficient, and real spending on practically everything has increased in dollar terms since the 1970s; in fact, real spending should increase as our economy grows. A more appropriate (though still imperfect; one flaw is that it’s not adjusted for changing demographics) look at K-12 public education spending in the United States reveals that we are spending approximately the same amount relative to the size of our economy that we were several decades ago.

"What’s more, K-12 education funding has declined significantly even in real dollar terms in recent years; during the 2014-2015 school year, 35 states were still providing less total state and local per pupil funding than they had been providing before the Great Recession. Title I funding for low-income schools and special education funding have also fallen since 2010.

"Finally, it’s important to remember that even if aggregate funding levels were higher, aggregate numbers don’t speak to the distribution of funding. We’ve yet to target and sustain increased funding in schools that serve our neediest students. Especially when it comes to low-income areas, America definitely can – and should – invest more in K-12 public education."

Read the whole thing.

When you offer someone a choice of ...

... of two cars at the same price --- one brand new, and one used with 100,000 on the odometer ...

That's not really a choice, now, is it?

The game is being rigged against public schools, and in favor of privately-managed charter schools. The playing field is not level.

There's a secret, leaked memo circulating from billionaire Eli Broad and his people about privatizing Los Angeles schools --- i.e. replacing them with privately-managed charter chains that Broad either owns in part or to which Broad is affiliated.

At one point in this wretched document, the writers curse the fact that, thanks to Prop 30, funding FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS has increased. The memo's authors cite that as an unfortunate development and that any such funding and improvement in tje quality of public schools (for example, that led to... HORROR OF HORRORS ... a 10% pay increase for teachers) as something devoutly to be avoided or prevented in the future.

The resulting improvement in the quality of Los Angeles' public schools and its teachers is viewed by Broad (and the memo's authors) as an obstacle that they must unfortunately overcome, as that makes the traditional public schools more competitive with privately-managed charters --- those privately-managed schools which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations that the traditional public schools do not.


Jack Covey said...


Here's my comment to the Spielberg article:


"Dimitry Melhorn is a disinformation specialist for the privatizers and corporate reformers.

"Their overall strategy is the starve the traditional public schools of funding, causing dysfunction (i.e. teacher shortages) and low academic performance, then used that dysfunction and low academic performance --- that they actually caused through the initial starvation --- as justification for privatizing all public schools, or turning them over to private management by charter chains that are not accountable to the public via democratically elected school boards (which must all be abolished), not transparent to the public, and who do not educate all the public (eschewing the most expensive and troublesome students --- special ed, English language learners, homeless kids, foster care, kids with disruptive behavior.

"In the process, this abolition of democratically-elected school boards eliminates the ability of the parents or the citizen-taxpayers to have any decision-making power or influence over the governance of their schools. It’s essential the death of democratic control of schools, and the ascension of corporate dominance of all education.

"Any-hoo, when someone tries to stop the starvation of the traditional public schools or tries to increase funding, the corporate masters send in well-paid propagandists like Melhorn — or that teleginic twit Campbell Brown — to make the claim that…

“THOSE SCHOOLS ARE GETTIN’ PLENTY OF MONEY RIGHT NOW, SO JUST SHUT ABOUT MORE FUNDING.. and to prove it, let me show you some bogus studies, or selectively distort the results of other studies… “

"These propagandistic talking points are all once again made to keep that starvation of traditional public schools going. .. with the endgame being the destruction of traditional public school.. like in New Orleans.

"It’s funny how the corporate reformers say, 'We’re about giving parents "choice" in schools.'

"However, when a parent in New Orleans (or elsewhere) says, 'Well, my choice is to have a fully-funded, traditional, open-enrollment public school in my neighborhood --- where, for example, I can walk my kids to school, and with low class sizes, and a full and rich curriculum --- and have that school under the oversight of a school board where I and my fellow citizens can vote for who is on that board.'

"The response from corporate reformers is, 'Well, you can’t have THAT choice.'

"As Jennifer (Edushyster) Berkshire puts it,

" "What’s the good of having so-called ‘choice’, when you don’t have any control over the choices that you get to choose ... if every choice is a privately-managed charter school where the parents and the citizens have ZERO decision-making power or input in that school's governance?'


Jack Covey said...


"On another topic, Jonathan Kozol’s books point out the hypocrisy of the folks from wealthy districts who attempt to fight the lawsuits from parent plaintiffs from poor districts who want equitable funding for those poor districts — i.e. taking funding from the wealthy districts and giving it to the poorer districts.

"The folks from the wealthy districts make the contradictory claim — money in THOSE OTHER schools is unimportant — while simultaneously fighting tooth and nail to prevent any loss of funding from those wealthy districts (and given to poor districts.

"If money is so unimportant, why are you fighting so hard to prevent your schools from losing it?

"In essence, they argue:

— when it comes to wealthy neighborhoods, funding for schools matters, and any & all money they get will be money well spent …


— when it comes to poor districts, funding for schools doesn’t matter one bit, as any & all money that is or will be given to them is wasted on those hopelessly stupid and undeserving poor people.

"A bit simplistic, but that’s essentially the argument that’s promulgated.

"Sometimes that argument has prevailed —- as it did in Illinois' courts, for example. However, sometimes the judges rule against it — in New Jersey, for example, with the historic Abbott lawsuit. New Jersey governor Chris Christie tried to eviscerate Abbott's equitable funding priorities with legislation, but the courts ultimately ruled against him, and the nation’s most equitable funding of a state's education was allowed to continue. (By the way, Christie made cuts elsewhere.)"

Ajay Srikanth said...

Policies with disparate impact are generally not subject to strict scrutiny. Must prove intent to discriminate too.


Also, in theory school choice would serve to reduce segregation. In practice, they have wrsened it a little bit:


Giuseppe said...

Politicians are beholden to teacher unions?! Seriously? One whole political party, the GOP, is rabidly and openly anti-union. The other party may pay lip service to unions but when it comes to education, most of the Democrats (such as Obama, Booker, Emanuel, Cuomo, Malloy, etc.) are pro charter school because of the massive amount of money on the pro charter school side: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mike Dell, The DeVos family, the Walton clan, Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn, Jackie Bezos and her husband, Mike, Jeff Bezos, Nicolas J. Hanauer, Anne Dinning and her husband, Michael Wolf, Microsoft billionaire, Paul Allen of Seattle, hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson, etc. There are many more hedge funders and billionaires for charter schools and then there are the Koch brothers, types who are vehemently anti-union as well. Of course Mr. Mehlhorn will counter that Diane Ravitch is wealthy and the unions have millions (that $700 million he keeeps harping on) to throw around. Baloney. Whatever millions the unions may throw around for advocacy, it's chump change compared to all these billionaires who are some of the richest people on the planet.
To be blunt, Mehlhorn, is anti-union because he does not want teachers to have any job protections or he wants teachers to have the same job protections as Walmart employees. Principals and school administrators have all the tools in the world to get rid of bad unionized teachers in spite of Mr. Mehlhorn's disingenous and oily protestations.

Dienne said...

Oh for pity's sake, JJ, stop talking to this fool. Right in the first sentence he misrepresents everything you said. Never did you say that charters are better than public schools, so right there he shows just how mendacious he is. Game over, JJ FTW.

Ajay Srikanth said...

Policies with disparate impact usually don't face standard of strict scrutiny:

"[A] law, neutral on its face and serving ends otherwise within the power of government to pursue, is not invalid under the Equal Protection Clause simply because it may affect a greater proportion of one race than of another."


Also, charters have heightened segregation by race, disability, and language status.


We don't have data on homeless students but willing to bet charters serve fewer than district schools in similar areas. Using statewide average is dumb

Rusty Trepanner said...

You might want to look at this recent work by Angrist:



Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Hi Crunchy Mama / Deb: the debate is whether they help children learn in the aggregate. I believe I've accurately summarized the debate. Jazzman admits some charters work, but says that in the aggregate they're no better than TPS. That's the dispute.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Jack Covey: thank you for your extensive posts. I have not yet responded to Ben Spielberg's post, but broadly speaking there are several flaws. To pick only a few reasons Ben's analysis is wrong:

(1) His attack on my spending numbers range from flawed to dead wrong. In the "flawed" category is the idea that the numbers falsely include college -- if you eliminate college, you still get much higher numbers in the US. In the "dead wrong" category is the idea that "% of GDP" is the right measure. He justifies this by the claim that "real spending" increases on everything, but that's just objectively false. The cost of televisions, computers, music, communications have all plummeted -- and some of those might be relevant to the field of education, wouldn't you say? The % GDP is a ratio that depends much more on the denominator (GDP) than the numerator (school spending). In other words, resources for schools could stay flat, but we underwent a sustained recession, our schools would look like they were getting a huge influx of resources, because the % would go up. On the flip side, if the US economy had decades of growth due to innovation (as it did), it would look (as Ben wants it to) that our schools are underfunded. But neither a booming or busting economy really influences the total level of resources we provide to our schools; they only influence the denominator of Ben's formula, not the numerator.

(2) The idea that I'm a well-paid propagandist is part of the smear campaign that this debate with Jazzman is supposed to address. I do not get paid anything for this advocacy. The suggestion that I do is both a lie and intended to avoid addressing the arguments, which are actually pretty compelling in the other direction.

(3) You are right that choice does not extend to the ability to choose a monopoly school that compels attendance by all parents. This is a "choice" that pretty much has only worked out for prosperous suburban whites.

(4) Ben's argument that financial resources have not been distributed equally is even more true for choice -- choice is what has been most badly mis-allocated. Poor folks don't have it, everyone else does. This black/white distinction is much, much shaper than the variations in finance equity that Ben cites.

Ben makes some other arguments too that are interesting to discuss, but since you don't quote those I'll leave those for another time.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Ajay: thank you for your comments. You are correct as to the legal standard. Disparate impact requires a showing of intent, which I do not do in this column. That is a separate topic. But that's not the point here. The reason why courts need to show intent is because they are a branch of government, less legitimate than the democratically elected legislature. We do not face that issue here. We're talking about the moral issue and the burden of proof of advocates assessing the evidence. (As a side note, there is other scholarship that shows substantial evidence as to racist intent in the construction of American public schools, so it's not an open-and-shut case. If it were, anti-charter laws would have long ago been struck down.)

That said, your data references mis-state the argument. The argument is NOT that segregation itself is proof of disparate impact. The argument is that CHOICE is denied on a disparate basis to blacks and Hispanics. Thus, blacks and Hispanics might choose less integration and more segregation -- but if they want that, they cannot choose it, while whites can. More importantly, there are a whole host of other reasons choice is powerful (including the ability to exert political pressure over the school you eventually choose), and if blacks and Hispanics have structurally less of it than whites, that's a serious problem.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Giuseppe: I appreciate the part of your comment that's focused on engagement. If you'd like to read the content, it's right here. The unions $700 million annual budget is much less than the reformers' number. https://medium.com/@DmitriMehlhorn/teachers-unions-spend-700-million-per-year-to-shape-education-policy-in-america-bbdbd7c2e8eb#.n7dlg4ol5. And the reason I want the teachers' profession to be changed by reform is because reforms substantially increase teacher recruiting and satisfaction, as we see from DC and NY which are two of the cities with surpluses of high-talent teachers, vs. California which is anti-reform and faces massive shortages. I have written about my own biases and motives here: https://medium.com/@DmitriMehlhorn/why-teachers-have-no-voice-99acd08e33b5#.nz0orq4q7

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Dienne: I'm pretty sure Jazzman agreed that the study showed a superior result from charters, but he claims it's not meaningful because it's small and generated by selective skimming, attrition, etc. I address all of those claims throughout. But he does, I'm pretty sure, concede the top-level headline of the CREDO study, because it's right there. You might want to read the whole thing to confirm. But if you don't want to do that, of course that's up to you.

Sue Alexander said...

Mr Melhorn,
I am a parent in Camden County, roughly 20 minutes outside of the City of Camden. I have watched (with horror) as the urban hope laws have been changed to maximize charter growth in Camden City. I believe that the microcosm of our small school mirrors what is happening in Camden in many ways.
We are in a small k-8 district. There are three classes at each grade level. Our school has leveled children by test score and teacher recommendation for the last five years.A class is honors, C class is behavior problems, low test scores, ESL, basic skills and Special Ed.
How has that worked? Great for my honors kid. He had smaller classes, less disruption in the room, and every child in his classes came to school with the school supplies they needed and the homework done. He received an awesome education.
My other son has moderate to severe disabilities. His classes are slightly larger (though there is an aide in the room). The classes are loud and frequently disrupted by behavior problems. Roughly half the students never do their homework. I send in two dozen pencils at the beginning of each year, and replace them every two months. It seems he is the only one with school supplies.
I am afraid this is what will happen to Camden as the charter schools proliferate. The charters will get kids whose parents are paying attention. The public schools will get disruption, lack of supplies, ESL, Special Ed and basic skills and behavior problems.
My honors kid has choices: I could choice him into other schools, get a scholarship to private school, send him Catholic, or to one of three yeshivas. My special child has no choices. There is no school in Camden County that will both accept him and provide the special services he needs.
I will (and am) taking care of my son. As the charter percentage in Camden rises, who will take care of kids like him in Camden who have no choice? Shall we, as a society, jettison him? What will happen to a city that warehouses 25% of their students? Will crime rise?
I am happy for the kids in Camden who are now college ready because they went charter. I get that they would not be there without the charters. BUT do I really have to sacrifice one son in order to save one? Is that the choice NJ is making for Camden children?

CrunchyMama said...

No, Dmitri - you misrepresented JJ's position, plain and simple. He NEVER said what you accused him of saying, and in fact said pretty much the opposite.

When you so blatantly misrepresent the position of your opponent, you lower the tone of the whole debate.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Hi Deb / Crunchy Mama: I am going to assume you're writing in good faith, with a genuine curiosity about what the evidence says rather than a pre-conclusion. I think if you have a genuine interest in engaging on the substance, you'll find the ability to read my words and conclude differently from your assertion. I had absolutely no intent to misrepresent his argument. As objective evidence, I'll point you to the comment from Dienne who claimed I misrepresented JJ in the exact opposite way that you say I misrepresented him. As a matter of basic logic, your claim and its opposite (by Dienne) cannot both be true. So isn't it more likely that I describe some aspects in some places and some in others? To make it clear, here is my assertion in full legalese to avoid misperception. JJ argues that some charters work, and some charters don't, and the aggregate position of his advocacy has generally been in defense of status quo limitations of charters such as caps and restrictions, and in favor of putting more resources into non-charter traditional schools. However, he does acknowledge a specific study result, namely that charters do show superior gains in the CREDO study (which he claims are not enough to justify change).

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Sue Alexander: thank you for your honest and clear-minded post. If indeed the choice was the one you fear, it would be a morally difficult one. However, the point of my article is that this isn't a choice. (1) The evidence shows that when charters expand, the remaining traditional public schools improve their performance, perhaps because of healthy competition. (2) If we saw evidence that that was starting to change, we could start to modify the policy framework to ensure that charters took more difficult-to-teach kids.

Sue Alexander said...

I believe that this is already happening in Camden, and it will get worse time goes on.
First, we know there is a parental involvement difference: children are in charters because the parents sought them out and followed the rules for applications. (Higher concentration of uninvolved parents in traditional public schools.)
Second, charters tend to have very strict discipline policies. Children who have difficulty controlling themselves either learn fast or find themselves constantly in trouble. Obviously this makes it more likely that the parents will remove them. (Higher population of children with behavior issues in TPS.)
Third, special ed. This is harder, in part because schools do not report the level of severity of the children they serve, and in part the numbers are blocked to provide privacy for the children. However, I find it very hard to believe that a charter school would maintain a student who regularly scores in the less than 20% range. It would kill their averages. Those kids go to TPS. (Higher population of severe special needs in TPS)
If we know that charter schools segregate in these very obvious ways, and we increase the number of charter seats in a district, how can we NOT end up with significantly different populations in the charter schools?

CrunchyMama said...

Dmitri: I'd also like to think I'm writing in good faith, and I appreciate your re-phrasing. JJ wrote in his first post, "I am not against charter schools. I started my K-12 career working in a charter. There is a place for "choice" in American education. There are some good charter schools out there and they should be commended for their work." Given everything else he has written on charters, I can't see him writing that if he didn't believe that at least some charters were in fact educating kids - but you opened this piece with "Do charter schools help kids learn? I believe yes, and Jersey Jazzman (Mark Weber) believes no." He has not in point of fact said that he does not believe charter schools help kids learn. He does take issue with many of the comparisons, with the spin that in the aggregate they are better - but that's not at all how you opened, and you could just as easily have made that distinction at the outset but chose not to.

I can blame my literal Aspie mind for my perception and the fact that your choice of words bugs the heck out of me, but as another commenter pointed out the same thing, I don't think it's just me. It really did change the perception for me that *you* were writing "in good faith." :-/ But again, thanks for clarifying.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Hi Deb / Crunchy: thank you for your honest engagement. Perhaps one takeaway is that we all need to watch our tone. You're saying that because JJ is "not against charter schools" and that "there are some good charter schools out there" that JJ would say "yes" to the statement "charter schools help kids learn." OK. If that's the result, GREAT! I would be happy to be wrong. But that's not the thrust of his commentary. The thrust is that he's not against charter schools, and some charter schools are good, as a way of contextualizing his support for policies that limit the growth of charters. I could have said, in response to the question prompt, that "I say 'yes' under certain circumstances and Jazzman says 'no' under certain circumstances," but in the context of a debate frame I think that's a pretty unusual caveat. I get that it bugs you, but the other person who was bugged was bugged in the EXACT OPPOSITE DIRECTION -- she was ticked off with my comment slightly later that Jazzman conceded the directionality of the CREDO study. At the end of the day, both sides of this conversation have become so tribal, and so used to talking only with folks who agree with them, that tonal tolerance is very low. I will do my best. My intention in this whole exchange is to get Jazzman (and others, like Bruce Baker and Ben Spielberg) to remember the hypotheses we are testing. The evidence is AMPLE for us to discuss and reject many of the hypotheses that they have implicitly offered for how charter policies should be built, but only if we really focus on actually discussing those hypotheses.

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Sue Alexander: I appreciate your perspectives on Camden, and we will need to keep watch. There are other people who comment anecdotally about their perspectives on Camden, who believe that the reforms in Camden are creating improvements that will benefit all kids. As long as these competing impressions are out there, we should keep watch and look for data. Again, the only aggregate data that we have on charterization suggests that, on balance, the "skimming" effect that Jazzman / Baker claim does not exist, or is outweighed by the healthy competition from charters.

Sue Alexander said...

Really? That's your answer? Skimming effects do not occur? Really? The educational reforms in camden are creating improvements that will benefit all kids? Really? You won't even acknowledge the effect of parents having to seek out and follow the rules for applying? Do you actually understand that some parents can't seek out the application forms, fill them out AND get them back to the school, and that the children of those parents are qualitatively different than the children whose parents DO successfully apply?
Where are you from? Have you ever taught in a school? Have you ever met someone who is different from you?
We shall wait until competing impressions agree? Do you understand that that interval is the entire educational lifetime of my child and many like him in Camden City? This is a vast experiment, and we will know in twenty years if we are correct. In the meantime my son, and many like him, are not receiving an education. Go back to your ivory tower. You have no right having any opinion or power over children.
Mark, why are you talking to this guy?

Sue Alexander said...

I can't drop this. Will you re-educate my son, and hundreds like him, when you find out that you took the cream of the crop and left the rest to rot? Will you help him fill out job applications when you realize that taking all the smart, parent supported kids out of a system means that those left behind can't function?

Ajay Srikanth said...

I agree that black and Hispanic (as much as I hate that racial category because there are significant differences by ethnicity)have the right to choose segregation. But then can we agree the the "charter" treatment is simply peer effects (along with additional private and public funding)? Do you genuinely believe that teachers at charters are superior to district teachers and that's why they have higher proficiency rates?

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Sue and Ajay: I understand your firm conviction that charters succeed by skimming. All I ask is that we look at the evidence to see whether that is, in fact, the case. I agree with both of you that there are some data points in favor of your argument, including the individual stories that Sue discusses and some of the broader factual points that Jazzman and Bruce Baker mention. The point that I make in the article is that there is also evidence in the other direction: that traditional public schools also tend to have horrific attrition rates (often worse than traditional public schools, in other words they force kids out my means other than suspensions), and that traditional public schools may improve their performance when they face healthy competition from charter schools. So, is there any aggregate evidence?

The point I make in the column here is that we do have a clear aggregate test available to us: if charters succeed by skimming "easier to teach" children, then traditional public schools will be left with "harder to teach" children. This is the inescapable conclusion of your argument, as has been acknowledged by many folks such as Peter Greene. Indeed, this is the policy argument that folks like Jazzman make: since charters succeed by skimming, if we allow them to expand, then traditional public schools will be left with the hardest-to-teach populations and will therefore fail.

So what is the evidence for or against that idea? Well, it turns out to be a decisive rebuttal. The recent NAEP scores, which have caused so much consternation nationally, confirm that DC public schools continue to accelerate their performance improvement at the same time that charter schools teach 44% of kids in the district. In New Orleans, overall districtwide numbers compared to Baton Rouge show massive gains. We see a correlation between charter expansion and TPS improvement in New York City and in Texas. The only evidence that charters hurt TPS is in an entirely different realm, that of fiscal policy, which is a separate issue (and relates to fixed cost management which should be and could be managed separately).

Ajay, you ask the question about why charters do better, if not peer effects. You hypothesize that it's extra financial resources, which the unions have invested massively in trying to prove through their think tank network, with almost no confirmation. On the contrary, the available evidence continues to suggest that charters have fewer financial resources than TPS, especially if you compare them to high-income suburban TPS which receive enormous in-kind and other resources from prosperous parents.

You then put it as a claim by me that the charter teachers must just be better. Recall that I, like most education reformers, come from a family of public school teachers. I sincerely believe that my mom, my mother in law, my uncle, my father in law, my aunt, and many of my family friends were great, great teachers. It's not the individual teachers, it's the system. The system of TPS is a crushing bureaucracy where excellence is not rewarded; indeed, it's often punished. If you haven't already read my piece about my mom and my daughter, I encourage you to do so as it explains why I believe this. https://medium.com/@DmitriMehlhorn/why-teachers-have-no-voice-99acd08e33b5#.7vu9on4le

Dmitri Mehlhorn said...

Sue Alexander: I also want to thank you for your emotional engagement, which I share. I feel like I should comment separately on some of the moral claims you make.

First, you talk about charters as an experiment. You have to remember that the entire structure of traditional public schools, a monopoly system of residential neighborhood compulsory education, is a slow-motion experiment that has lasted over 100 years (maybe 150 depending upon your count), and it is an experiment that has failed generation after generation of students of color. Every time a new teacher comes into a classroom, there is an experiment involved. Every time a teacher uses a new method, or a new technology, there is an element of experiment. We can be certain that eliminating all innovation will be a terrible outcome for all children. So let's embrace and support those people that are investing heavily in evaluating schools -- for the first time -- and trying to learn what works. Those folks include the Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education under Barack Obama. A longer discussion of what innovation could achieve, and what it would mean for students, is here: https://www.aei.org/publication/barbarians-at-the-gate/

Second, you talk about the immorality of letting talented students leave the system. Respectfully, the moral argument is entirely on the other side. Prosperous Americans have already fled the weakest public school systems via residential choices, which are denied to poor parents of color due to residential segregation. You're now talking about forcing students who need every chance in life -- like the pseudonym "Sally" in my column for Jazzman -- to sacrifice their own futures out of the entirely speculative hope that their sacrifice might help the system and in turn help some even more disadvantaged students. That violates both Kantian ethics and also civil rights law, by using individuals as means to an end, and doing that disproportionately for individuals of color.

Giuseppe said...

"a monopoly system of residential neighborhood compulsory education"
I've heard this comment before from the reform crowd, even from Andrew Cuomo, it just leaves me speechless. It's so jaw-droppingly specious and inane. It's like saying we have a monopoly system of police departments, fire departments, governments, supreme courts. How dare they, we should have charter police departments, charter fire departments, a charter supreme court, charter legislatures to compete with the elected state legislatures. Our public schools are one of the great achievements of this country. There are tons of private schools and religious schools all over the map. Having charter schools does not negate compulsory schooling. Supposedly charter schools are public schools so there is still a public school monopoly. In any case, to refer to district schools as some sort of monopoly is like referring to our military as a monopoly. It's not a monopoly, its a public good. Public schools are an investment in our future. Using a loaded word like monopoly which has all kinds of negative connotations is pure and simple demagoguery. Old Immanuel K. would not approve.