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Experimenting for education reform

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California’s 1978 Education Code, seen on the left, was just two volumes. Forty years later, the state’s public school population has grown to 6.2 million students from 4 million and the code spans 12 volumes. (Courtesy image)

Last week, we looked at the funding side of the root causes of the poor state of the public schools in California (and San Francisco). This week, we look at school reform. Next week, we will conclude by proposing an agenda for change.

Analyzing the need and potential for school reform with rigor is a challenge. It is one thing to describe the degree and character of bureaucratic bloat in the public school system, but how can one objectively quantify it? Even more challenging: How can one test and observe what changes to schools produce better outcomes, given all the confounding variables in the real world?

One way to answer the first challenge is literally to measure the growth of the California Education Code from 1978 to 2018. The first photo shows that the California Education Code in 1978 was a mere two volumes, when there were 4 million students in California’s public schools. The second photo shows the California Education Code in 2018 had ballooned to 12 equivalently sized volumes to serve the needs of 6.2 million students in the state’s public schools.

Was this six-fold expansion of the education code necessary to serve a student population that had only increased by 50 percent over the same time period? Or was it instead a function of the increased state oversight (versus local control) that occurred after Proposition 13 led to the majority of school funding shifting from local property taxes to state income taxes? Regardless of the cause, I know from conversations with teachers, administrators and parents that the existing thicket of rules and regulations are widely perceived to be stifling and bureaucratic.

But perception, even when based in experience, is not always reality. We need a laboratory to test different ways of running schools. This is the motivation behind charter schools: allow new public schools to open and operate under a public charter with more freedom to set their rules, then observe over time which schools provide better student outcomes and, by extension, what methods and organization structures work best.

However, there is a key structural problem with the charter school test and learn approach: cherry picking. A charter school may end up attracting a non-representative sample of students (e.g. those who have either more personal initiative or a more supportive family environment), so that any positive effects the charter school produces might be mainly due to its student base. Furthermore, a charter school engaging in such cherry picking — even if unintended — might destabilize the existing public schools by leaving the schools with an even needier student base, and/or siphoning off badly needed public funding.

What we would like to analyze is a large-scale, well-tracked experiment with robust results that are free from the distortions and negative side effects of cherry picking. And fortunately, we have it in the post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans school reforms. The results of these reforms were written up in a July 15 New York Times column by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David Leonhardt.

Here are the background facts, as reported by Leonhardt. After Hurricane Katrina devastated an already struggling community, “The state of Louisiana took over the school system in 2005, abolished the old bureaucracy and closed nearly every school.” Then, “Rather than running schools itself, the state became an overseer, hiring independent operators of public schools — that is, charter schools — and tracking their performance.” Crucially, because the changes operated over the entire school system, there was no cherry picking. An entire population of students who had previously been poorly served was transformed into a laboratory where different schools operated with substantially more freedom to set their rules — and then the results were then rigorously tracked.

We now have a dozen years of data from the experiment. (If you have the interest, I suggest reading the more detailed technical report in addition to the summary policy brief.) Performance has substantially improved. Not only are test results much better, but those results are persisting in post-test outcomes: high school graduation, college attendance and college graduation are all significantly higher.

Leonhardt visited New Orleans to interview students, teachers, principals, community leaders and researchers in order to understand the insights we should take away:

“People in the city point to two main forces driving the progress: autonomy and accountability,” Leonhardt wrote.

“In other school districts, teachers and principals are subject to a thicket of rules, imposed by a central bureaucracy. In New Orleans, schools have far more control. They decide which extracurriculars to offer and what food to serve. Principals choose their teachers — and can let go of weak ones. Teachers, working together, often choose their curriculum.”

“Crucially, all of this autonomy comes with accountability: Schools must show their approach is working.”

They are evaluated based on test scores, including ACT and Advanced Placement, and graduation rate — with an emphasis on the trend lines. Schools that fail to make progress can lose their contract. Over the past decade, the district has replaced the operators of more than 40 schools in response to poor performance. … [The] research has found that much of the city’s progress has stemmed from closing the worst charter schools and letting successful charters expand.

In a follow-up column, Leonhardt notes how poorly we are served by the typical debate between, on the one hand “staunch defenders [of school reform]” who “tend to be conservative” and “see market competition as a cure-all” versus on the other hand “the harshest critics of reform — who are largely progressive — [and] oppose nearly any alternative to traditional schools.” I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Leonhardt. In our debates over education policy, we should never lose sight of two critical points:

(1) Our current public education system is serving us inadequately, and is most especially letting down our neediest students. (2) If taxpayers will have to contribute more money to our public schools — and we will — then we have a responsibility to do everything possible to improve how our schools are run so that our higher taxes will be put to the best possible use.

Next week, I will summarize what we have learned from our inquiry and propose an agenda for change.

Patrick Wolff lives in the Sunset District. Email him at info@followthemoneysf.com.

NOTE: This story was updated online to make it clear that the author quoted David Leonhardt at length.

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