Wednesday, June 5, 2013

More thoughts on dumping

I'll have more (mostly positive) on this Slate article by Ray Fisman, but first here's (hopefully) one last point on looting.

As part of a good discussion of the state of charter schools, Fisman uses a not-so-good example:
The secret of many charter schools’ success isn’t a mystery: longer hours and additional school days, which are part of a “no excuses” philosophy that emphasizes frequent testing and often requires even longer days from charter school teachers. When public schools integrate these elements—as in a pilot project run by Harvard economist Roland Fryer in Houston, early evidence suggests those schools are seeing the same gains as high-performing charters.

But the success of charters doesn’t necessarily provide us any answers about what will improve education on a larger scale. KIPP, the nationwide network of charter schools and one of the great success stories of the charter movement, has 125 schools serving 41,000 students, making it less than one-twentieth the size of the New York City Department of Education. It isn’t clear that there are enough teachers willing to put in 10-hour days or enough parents who will force their kids to endure the extended hours of instruction. To this point, one recent study by MIT graduate student Christopher Walters argues that lack of demand by parents will be a significant limiting factor in the further expansion of charter schools.

Before we jump to success story in this case, we need some context. We know that KIPP at the very least tolerates principals who engage in large scale dumping (see here and here) and for reasons I've mentioned before and will recap shortly, dumping is one of the nastiest but most effective ways of gaming the system.

Of course this isn't just a KIPP issue. Here's an excerpt from a letter sent by a principal of an LA public middle school principal to Diane Ravitch:
Since school began, we enrolled 159 new students (grades 7 and 8). Of the 159 new students, 147 of them are far below basic (FBB)!!! Of the 147 students who are FBB, 142 are from charter schools. It is ridiculous that they can pick and choose kids and pretend that they are raising scores when, in fact, they are purging nonperforming students at an alarming rate—that is how they are raising their scores, not by improving the performance of students. Such a large number of FBB students will handicap the growth that the Audubon staff initiated this year, and further, will negatively impact the school's overall scores as we continue to receive a recurring tide of low-performing students.
The specific problem here is that even though principals at most charter schools (including KIPP) are almost certainly concerned about their kids, the incentives are tragically misaligned, encouraging schools to shuffle students in ways that are far worse than zero sum.

If you've taught in one of these achievement-gap-closing schools, you know that a small number of students demand a disproportionate amount of your resources, both in terms of instruction and classroom management (particularly for inexperienced teachers). These same students also tend adversely affect morale and social norms.

While it's true that sometimes a transfer turns out to be a good thing for a kid in the long run, at the time, being forced out of one school and shoved into a strange one is disruptive, stressful and insulting. Kids who were confused by the material will generally find themselves even more confused. Kids who were angry will generally find themselves even angrier. Kids who were overwhelmed and stressed out will... You get the drift.

This is a serious, perhaps even fatal flaw in the current configuration of most reform proposals, a misalignment of incentives that actually allows administrators to improve their schools' ratings and make life easier for themselves and their faculties by increasing one of the worst possible outcomes for students.

It is also a surprisingly easy flaw to fix. You simply assign an appropriate penalty for attrition. The difficult part is getting the issue into the debate.

I should add that most administrators don't treat this question lightly. When I taught at a parochial prep school in Watts, the principal agonized over every decision to transfer out a student and I believe she was much more representative of administrators than is KIPP's Randy Dowell. Most educators will try to do the right thing despite the incentives, but that's not a set-up you want to rely on. Incentives have a way of eroding good intentions, particularly in systems where the ethical players actually have less job security.

At the risk of pounding this point in too hard, you cannot have a reform movement without trustworthy data. The level of gaming and outright cheating we've seen greatly undercuts our ability to make rational, data-driven policy decisions and that level is only going to get worse until we fix the incentive system that's driving it up.

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