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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Charter Schools, An Exchange: Part V

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 exchange about charter schools.

Part I: Mehlhorn's opener.

Part II: My reply.

Part III: Mehlhorn's response.

Part IV: My second reply.

[ADDING: Here is the rest of the exchange:

Part V: Mehlhorn's second response.

Part VI: My final reply.]

Leave your thoughts in the comments below. My final reply will be up shortly.

* * *

Five Questions for Charter Critics
Jazzman-Mehlhorn Episode V

Reform skeptic Jersey Jazzman is hosting a debate about charter schools. He and I have spent 4 posts and about 10,000 words discussing the past few years’ worth of research by charter advocates, detractors, and academics. We will probably have a “long tail” of comments in social media, but this is the final formal installment of my appeals to Jazzman and the other skeptics who have engaged over the past year or so, including Sue Alexander, Dr. John Thompson, Deb Stahl, Jack Covey, Ajay Srikanth, Daniel Katz, Greg Clark, Mindy Rosier, Ben Spielberg, Peter Greene, Ben Faber, Randi Weingarten, Dr. Bruce Baker, Gail Richmond, Ed Harris, Jennifer Berkshire, and others.

If you’re up for it, I have five questions for all of you. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list – we could talk for years about test scores, poverty, fixed costs, and other issues. But in the spirit of trying to make progress in at least some areas, I’d be grateful for your honest take in these five areas, not conflated with other issues.  

(1) Jazzman, why don’t TPS test results go down as charters expand? 

Mark, the skeptics’ most common and most powerful arguments involve “skimming.” Compared to TPS [traditional public schools], these arguments claim that charter populations qualify more for reduced-price rather than free lunch (i.e., mild poverty rather than extreme poverty); charters push kids out more often; charters don’t always backfill open seats; charters deliver peer groups rather than better education; charters don’t serve as many SPED [special education] or severe SPED students; charters only serve students whose parents are motivated enough to apply; etc. These claims have elements of truth, but the key question is their aggregate impact including offsetting issues.

Mark, do you acknowledge the role this claim plays in the architecture of charter skepticism? After all, if skeptics are right on this issue, charter test-score gains are illusory, and thus charter expansion will hurt TPS by leaving them with a hard-to-teach cohort. If skeptics are wrong, then the charters’ test-score gains result from something the charters are doing, and charter expansion does not damage TPS by leaving them with a hard-to-teach cohort.[i]

Mark, as you know, both sides have invested heavily in studying TPS student achievement as choice expands. I won’t revisit all prior posts, but you know I’m looking at Washington DC; New Orleans; Florida; some boroughs in New York City; and some districts in Texas.

Mark, where is the evidence backing up the idea that hard-to-teach cohorts will be increasingly concentrated in TPS, driving down results? Is it possible for you to acknowledge the weight of the current evidence on this subject?  Will you have the courage to articulate a testable explanation for why the facts have repeatedly been the opposite of skeptics’ predicted results? 

(2) Jazzman, why aren’t race and history relevant to the burden of proof here?

In your most recent piece, Mark, you characterized my burden of proof argument as follows: “if someone can gather up a few parents who want something, they should get it, absent a compelling reason that they shouldn’t.” I would like to better understand why you and other skeptics are so quick to dismiss the racial and historical issues suggest a different presumption.

Let’s start with race. On average, graduation rates, test scores, and other metrics suggest that African American students and Hispanic students are poorly served in existing TPS, especially by comparison with white, Jewish, and Asian students. Parents in African American and Hispanic communities often speak out on the topic of school choice, in interviews, focus groups, polls, and charter applications. I have cited some of the results in previous posts, but the short version is a lot of these parents really want more charter schools.  Tens of thousands of parents (or more), who bear the legacy effects of centuries of state-sponsored racism, should not be dismissed as “a few parents” who’ve been “gathered up” by “someone.” Their agency and their numbers suggest a different presumption.

Turning from race to history, your post refers to Russell’s Teapot. That is a perfect frame for what many parents of color say. For white, Jewish, and Asian parents in TPS, choice and the threat of choice long ago enabled meaningful control over their children’s schools. Thus, current anti-charter laws have unique and disparate force among low-income black and Hispanic parents, who become compelled to send their children to struggling TPS.  The anti-charter policy therefore amounts to the following: “I, Jersey Jazzman, offer you the Russell’s Teapot monopoly public school system. This public school system is a century-old experiment that has not yet delivered results for your community. We cannot give up, however, until we try to supplement those schools with more social services, more resources, and other innovations. Until every possible test has been tried (other than charter schools of course), you will be required to send your community’s children to these TPS into the infinite future.”

Mark, this is not a choice between two impossible-to-assess claims.[ii]  As you know, we are not talking about authorizing a specific charter, but rather laws that limit the expansion of *any* charters. As you note, our nation has gathered considerable evidence about this question.  We know that nonprofit and private actors compete with public actors for public dollars in other sectors, including healthcare, energy, and military procurement. We know that wealthy parents already have extensive school choice.  In light of that, why isn’t the burden of proof on the monopoly public school system, which overwhelmingly employs relatively prosperous white people, and which was constructed without meaningful input from (and often deliberately in opposition to) communities of color? 

(3) Jazzman, why don’t you push for good charters?  

You seem to agree that the best charter school chains can deliver results.  Why don’t you push to replace charter caps and limits, like we have here in Virginia, with enlightened charter authorization policies like those of Boston? 

(4) Jazzman, how much improvement would be enough?   

If you are open to facts, I am trying to understand what evidence would be sufficient for you to prove the theory that charters actually work better than TPS for low-income students of color.   
You dismiss the CREDO 2015 results in a few ways, but I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. To try to clarify the issue here, let me try to stipulate as many of your objections as possible.

First, let’s talk about whether a fraction of a standard deviation is meaningful.  You don’t like my healthcare example, and we can’t seem to agree on human height,[iii] so let’s use the market returns example that you approved. You said that a difference of 0.1 standard deviations was not a big deal, because “if my investment goal is to make a million dollars, getting $275 over $232 is not of any practical significance for me” (emphasis yours). Jazzman, that’s more than an 18% difference in end-of-period wealth, and I used a starting number of $100 just to make the math obvious. The median net worth of a household in America today is about $81,000; using that as a starting investment delivers a 10-year difference of $35,000 in extra wealth. And remember, 10 years still a shorter period of time than a child spends in K-12 schools. 

That said, you suggest that 0.1 or .11 standard deviations is not the right benchmark, because those are the aggregate average gains Hispanic ELL students, who seem to benefit especially from charter schools.[iv] So, let’s broaden to include all black and Hispanic students in poverty, who benefit by less in math (.08 and .07) and reading (.06 and .04).[v]  If you apply those numbers to the financial market calculations from the prior paragraph, you get gains of ~ $27,000; $24,000; $20,000; and $13,000.  To me, none of those are small potatoes, but the real point is that it depends on your perspective. Parents and policy-makers would certainly be on safe ground in concluding that gains of that magnitude are worth embracing. Any instrument that reliably delivered those kinds of gains would instantly become the industry norm on Wall Street.

You argue that the effect sizes of charter schools are merely “a few more bubbles filled in correctly.” Yet Mark, a few bubbles per year on average, across a large population, represents marginal additional mastery every single year. It’s not a perfect or complete measure, but it may just be the difference for a kid on the edge. Maybe the best way to frame it is not that students advance faster; rather, maybe it’s that they don’t fall behind. Either way, even if you and many others do not think that those bubbles matter, millions of educators and parents care about them.

All of which leads back to the original question: how much would be enough?  What would charter schools have to show you for you to accept the theory that these schools, because they do not have to deal with the union contracts and other bureaucratic hurdles, actually deliver better results for low-income children of color?   

(5) Jazzman, do we already have some areas of agreement? If so, what do they mean?

For policy-makers interested in choice policy, it seems as though we might agree on a few things.  Having read your work, and that of many other conscientious charter skeptics, I thought I’d take a stab at areas of agreement, and see if you could agree to any of them, or articulate an alternative package of agreements, and then suggest what policy-makers might learn from those areas of choice when deciding whether or not to maintain charter caps. 

For my part, I agree that for suburban areas, and for white, English speaking, prosperous children, traditional public schools currently perform as well as charter schools, or better. I agree further that, even for poor students facing residential segregation, charters alone will not eliminate the achievement gap between the children of wealthy families and the children of poor families (although charters will at least start to equalize the narrow issue of school choice, which wealthy families have and these families do not). I agree that some charter schools have been much more effective than others, and that charter authorizers should therefore be careful in expanding charters and aggressive in closing them. I agree that numeracy and literacy, as measured by test scores, are not a complete measure of student achievement or school performance, and that therefore over time we need to monitor lifetime student outcomes.   I certainly agree that schools alone won’t solve all of humanity’s problems, from wealth inequality to violence to sickness.  I also agree that more money, if spent properly on students, could help students obtain better outcomes. 

I have not been able to identify your explicit concessions, as they often appear as caveats or rebuttals.  I believe, however, that you acknowledge the shameful history of American traditional public schools, including the consequences of residential segregation, and the racial motives of public actors who built the modern K-12 system from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. I am confident you condemn situations where TPS student discipline is turned over to physically violent police, or where teachers are abusive, just as I would condemn those situations in charter or private schools. I bet you also would acknowledge that wealthier parents use both political power and the threat of choice to navigate traditional systems for the benefit of their kids.  I suspect you agree that not all TPS expenditures have been wise, or for the benefit of students – indeed, you may even agree that public sector traditional public schools have an extensive history of fiscal waste, fraud, and abuse.  I suspect you also agree that public funding, multi-sector provision, and private citizen choice works in some areas, such as public services in Denmark, or healthcare provision (as opposed to healthcare finance) in the United States. 

Is that a fair summary, Jazzman?  If so, can you think of any compromises to recommend to policy-makers who might be reading this exchange? 

* * * *

Thank you again for your platform and the patience of your audience.  I hope this has moved a few minds, or at least opened up a few lines of communication. 

[i] I agree there remains the fiscal challenge of spreading fixed costs over fewer students. As I’ve noted, this is a real issue, but it’s a very different and more focused conversation than the skimming allegation.  Moreover, if we dive into the fiscal data, I believe we’ll find the same result: that the aggregate impact of charter expansion on TPS fiscal management is net positive, not net negative.  We’ll save that for another conversation, however.
[ii] When you ask the question: “is this really the best we can do?”, you are setting up an absurd standard.  By that standard, **no action** would ever be taken, ever, because no single action is ever by itself the best we can do.  The question at hand is whether we should expand charters or not. 
[iii] On height, the question is not whether the gain would make you an NBA basketball player, but whether most people would care. In the world of cosmetics, a product that delivered an average height gain of one-third of an inch would become a multibillion-dollar product. Also, when you double down on the Loveless / Spielberg examples, you use final adult height, rather than what clinicians and biostatisticians refer to as “height velocity” – i.e., how fast you grow. Height velocity is the apt comparison for growth over a long period, and standard deviations of height gain are pretty wide. 
[iv] Your protests about my focus on Hispanic ELL are a little bit overwrought, as I suspect you realize on reflection. As I have written in the past, this is the national cohort relevant to my daughter’s friend from soccer, whose personal story you entirely ignore in your rebuttal. It is also the most clear case for charters, because these parents are least likely to have either voice or choice to navigate TPS, so you’d expect charter gains to be especially stark.  To be clear, the Hispanic ELL population sub-group is an aggregate result, as it includes the results from those cities whose charters perform very poorly, as well as for those cities whose charters perform well.  If I had isolated only the better-performing cities or better-performing charters, the result would be much greater.
[v] The cohorts of students of color in poverty are the benchmark relevant to our debate, because those are the students who are least well served in the status quo. Of course I care about the other students, but those generally are not as poorly served in the status quo.


jc grim said...

Aggregate data hide real, individual effects at the classroom & child level which is the reason we need data disaggregated. It's the non-responders and outliers who are the subjects of other valid research methods, such as single subject & qualitative methodology, that are critical to reaching conclusions.

By excluding this body of research methods from your argument you can't make valid conclusions, unless your goal is to muddy the facts that charters don't serve the least well served.

Your assertion about aggregate data as the measure most relevant for under-served children is not only narrow & restrictive, but dishonest.

Rebecca deCoca said...

I don't see how "choice" per se helps anything if there aren't any good choices. Poor choices are no better than no choice.

I personally think Montessori or, from what I've read, Waldorf schools would be better than traditional schools even for white suburban kids, especially if they were integrated. I think traditional schools should become Montessori or Waldorf.

There are no Montessori or Waldorf charter schools in my area. I live in Ohio; therefore most charter schools are not good. Our traditional schools were doing a pretty good job serving all children until Arne and Kasich took over.

alice said...

Thought I'd repost part of a comment I made on a previous posting in this debate. It seems relevant to the closing arguments by Mr. Mehlhorn.

I would like to see the conversation change from Charters - yes or no - to "what can we do to improve education for everyone in a free and appropriate system?" What can we do to move towards a positive education experience for all kids? Is it possible for a public school system to do such a thing when funded by tax payers only? Is the only way to offer viable options in education to allow private money in? Would the private benefactors be as interested in offering the alternatives they claim out-perform public schools if there was no money to be made? Where are the models of true learning in charters (as opposed to test score raising, behavior-modifying, Spec student-limiting charters we hear so much about) that traditional public schools can be pressured to emulate? Are there more than a handful of those? Why aren't they (if they exist) the models all other schools are striving to compete with? Can you imagine what it would look like if all public schools were in competition with each other to see which ones could be more authentic, more inclusive, more student-centered, more teacher empowering than the other? How amazing would it be if charters were competing for public money in order to provide the most developmentally appropriate, student-centered, authentic learning environments where teachers were empowered to teach and guide students to reach for the stars?!
Now those would be charters I would be willing to fight for!