Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Checking in with two thousand and ten

As part of a bigger project, I've been going through the first year's worth of posts at the blog (at least the first year after it became a joint venture). I was unhappy with the writing on quite a few but I was reasonably satisfied with analyses and a few actually seem more topical now than they did in 2010.

For example, this was my reaction to a paragraph defending charter schools from the threat of regulation. The passage, not surprisingly, occurs in a Michelle Rhee hagiography that appeared in the New Republic.
This post by Joseph got me thinking. Charter schools are private contractors providing services that were previously provided by the government. Any statement that's true about charter schools should still be true if you substitute in the phrase "some private contractors."

But if you actually make the substitution, you often end up with statements the author would never think of making. Statements like this:
But Mead says ... she’s seen Gray hint that he’d like to more tightly regulate [private contractors]. “We have a law that gives a tremendous amount of autonomy to the [private contractors] but enables them to implement programs that can be effective. If you try to put more regulation on that, if can dissuade people from [privatizing],” Mead says.
Would Seyward Darby normally describe a push for tighter regulation of private contractors as "disappointing"? Would the New Republic normally endorse a candidate because he was against stricter regulation of private contractors? Would everyone take a moment and see if Rod Serling is taking a smoke break in the vicinity?

I strongly believe that there is a place for charter schools in our system, but those schools have to meet exactly the same criteria as other contractors. Two of those criteria are transparency and openness to regulation, and given recent history, it's safe to say that some charter schools are failing these tests.
As noted in this Monkey Cage post, the charter school systems in the states that most pushed deregulation (Michigan and Florida) have devolved a writhing mass of scandals, particularly involving for-profit schools. Things are arguably worse in Sweden where the entire country fully embraced the charter and market forces model.

In 2010, reformers loved Sweden:
Matthew Yglesias again steps up to defend the honor of charter schools with a post on Anders Böhlmark and Mikael Lindahl's paper “Does School Privatization Improve Educational Achievement? Evidence from Sweden’s Voucher Reform” (PDF) from which he concludes:
In effect, Swedish practice is like what exists in American states (Arizona, for example) with lots of charter schools and it’s quite similar to what the Obama administration (and I) are pushing. The big difference is that for-profit operators are allowed to run schools in Sweden, which I’d be for allowing.
There is, however, an asterisk next to the name of the paper. The footnote is easy to miss (you have to click on the 'More>>' button to find it), but it's worth the effort. It reads:
* Their answer? It does in the short-term, but the gains fade. All else being equal I favor more choice, so I’d regard the reform as a good thing but I assume the architects of the reform were hoping for something more.
To see just how badly this turned out, take a look at Ray Fisman's excellent piece in Slate.


  1. I liked your post in Wapo. I've had some time on my hands and have done a deep dive into the Michigan education statistics. NHA is definitely claiming to deliver better results, but the results are the results in changing the percentage of free lunch students (my post here: )

    I'm curious about what you think of the following MIT study of charter school performance:

    1. Recently, I haven't been paying much attention to the measurement issues (been focused on pedagogy and, of course, looting), but pretty much all of the charter successes I've seen fall into one or more of the following:

      Mom and Pop shops that won't scale;

      Schools that have fewer poor/ESL/LD students than their public school neighbors (such as in your NHA analysis);

      Attrition driven schools (I can't tell you how easy running a school is if you're ruthless about dumping kids).

      As for the MIT study, I need to look at it more carefully but in general, these studies tend to gloss over factors like placebo and volunteer effects, convergent behavior (particularly as it affects discipline and work habits), and the fact that certain methods used in these schools are only practical if you have committed students and parents who have made an effort to get into your school.