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  • Peer Effects And Attrition In High-Profile Charter Schools

    by Matthew Di Carlo on July 18, 2011

    An article in last week’s New York Times tells the story of child who was accepted (via lottery) into the highly-acclaimed Harlem Success Academy (HSA), a charter school in New York City. The boy’s mother was thrilled, saying she felt like she had just gotten her son a tuition-free spot in an elite private school. From the very first day of kindergarten, however, her child was in trouble. Sometimes he was sent home early; other times he was forced to stay late and “practice walking the hallways” as punishment for acting out. During his third week, he was suspended for three days.

    Shortly thereafter, the mother, who had been corresponding with the principal and others about these incidents, received an e-mail message from HSA founder Eva Moskowitz. Moskowitz told her that, at this school, it is “extremely important that children feel successful," and that HSA, with its nine-hour days, during which children are “being constantly asked to focus and concentrate," can sometimes “overwhelm children and be a bad environment." The mother understood this to be a veiled threat of sorts, but was not upset at the time. Indeed, she credits HSA staff with helping her to find a regular public school for her child to attend. Happily, her son eventually ended up doing very well at his new school.

    It’s very important to remember that this is really only one side of the story. It’s also an anecdote, and there is no way to tell how widespread this practice might be at HSA, or at charter schools in general. I retell it here because it helps to illustrate a difficult-to-measure “advantage” that some charter schools have when compared with regular neighborhood schools – the peer effects of attrition without replacement.

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  • Wisconsin: Will It Be "Cool Hand Luke" Or "Norma Rae"?

    by Randall Garton on July 13, 2011

    As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.

    This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.

    How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.

    This is a "win-win" situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that "once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated." While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said.

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  • The Faulty Logic Of Using Student Surveys In Accountability Systems

    by Esther Quintero on July 11, 2011

    In a recent post, I discussed the questionable value of student survey data to inform teacher evaluation models. Not only is there little research support for such surveys, but the very framing of the idea often reflects faulty reasoning.

    A quote from a recent Educators 4 Excellence white paper helps to illustrate the point:

    For a system that aims to serve students, young people’s interests are far too often pushed aside. Students’ voices should be at the forefront of the education debate today, especially when it comes to determining the effectiveness of their teacher.

    This sounds noble… but seriously, why should students’ opinions be "at the forefront of the education debate"? Are students’ needs better served when we ask students what they need directly? Research on this is explicit: no, not really.

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  • The Implications Of An Extreme "No Excuses" Perspective

    by Matthew Di Carlo on July 8, 2011

    In an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine, author Paul Tough notifies supporters of market-based reform that they cannot simply dismiss the "no excuses" maxim when it is convenient. He cites two recent examples of charter schools (the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, CO, and the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago) that were criticized for their low overall performance. Both schools have been defended publicly by "pro-reform" types (the former by Jonathan Alter; the latter by the school’s founder, Tim King), arguing that comparisons of school performance must be valid – that is, the schools’ test scores must be compared with those of similar neighborhood schools.

    For example, Tim King notes that, while his school does have a very low proficiency rate – 17 percent – his students are mostly poor African-Americans, whose scores should be compared with those of peers in nearby schools. Paul Tough’s rejoinder is to proclaim that statements like these represent the "very same excuses for failure that the education reform movement was founded to oppose." His basic argument is that a 17 percent pass rate is not good enough, regardless of where a school is located or how disadvantaged are its students, and that pointing to the low performance of comparable schools is really just shedding the "no excuses" mantra when it serves one’s purposes.

    Without a doubt, the sentiment behind this argument is noble, not only because it calls out hypocrisy, but because it epitomizes the mantra that "all children can achieve." In this extreme form, however, it also carries a problematic implication: Virtually every piece of high-quality education research, so often cited by market-based reformers to advance the cause, is also built around such "excuses."

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  • Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

    by Esther Quintero on July 7, 2011

    A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

    It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

    In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

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  • A 'Summary Opinion' Of The Hoxby NYC Charter School Study

    by Matthew Di Carlo on July 6, 2011

    Almost two years ago, a report on New York City charter schools rocked the education policy world. It was written by Hoover Institution scholar Caroline Hoxby with co-authors Sonali Murarka and Jenny Kang. Their primary finding was that:

    On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap” [the difference in scores between students in Harlem and those in the affluent NYC suburb] in math, and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.
    The headline-grabbing conclusion was uncritically repeated by most major news outlets, including the New York Post, which called the charter effects “off the charts," and the NY Daily News, which announced that, from that day forward, anyone who opposed charter schools was “fighting to block thousands of children from getting superior educations." A week or two later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg specifically cited the study in announcing that he was moving to expand the number of NYC charter schools. Even today, the report is often mentioned as primary evidence favoring the efficacy of charter schools.

    I would like to revisit this study, but not as a means to relitigate the “do charters work?" debate. Indeed, I have argued previously that we spend too much time debating whether charter schools “work," and too little time asking why some few are successful. Instead, my purpose is to illustrate an important research maxim: Even well-designed, sophisticated analyses with important conclusions can be compromised by a misleading presentation of results.

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  • What Do We Do When Second Graders Think Math Is Not For Girls?

    by Esther Quintero on July 5, 2011

    Although the past several generations have seen declining gender inequalities in educational attainment, gender-based differences in the fields of study we choose seem to persist (see here). For example, the percentage of women obtaining degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained exceedingly static in the last few decades (see here).

    In trying to explain this persistent trend, some conclude that (1) women are not as interested in these fields, and/or that (2) women just aren’t as good as men in these domains. But how would one tell whether these explanations are right or wrong?

    One problem is that people share specific, culturally based ideas about what men and women are and should be. Numerous studies demonstrate that the dearth of women in STEM fields can be directly linked to negative associations regarding girls and the sciences, and especially girls and math ability (see here and here).

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  • Remembering Elena Bonner; Honoring Andrei Sakharov

    by Arch Puddington on July 1, 2011

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

    Two years ago, Elena Bonner, frail in body but not in mind or spirit, had this to say about conditions in Russia:

    The West isn’t very interested in Russia….There are no real elections there, no independent courts, and no freedom of the press. Russia is a country where journalists, human rights activists and migrants are killed regularly, almost daily. And extreme corruption flourishes of a kind and extent that never existed earlier in Russia or anywhere else. So what do the Western mass media discuss mainly? Gas and oil -- of which Russia has a lot. Energy is its only political trump card, and Russia uses it as an instrument of pressure and blackmail. And there’s another topic that never disappears from the newspapers -- who rules Russia? Putin or Medvedev? But what difference does it make, if Russia has completely lost the impulse for democratic development that we thought we saw in the early 1990s.
    Here, in a few sentences of remarkable insight, Bonner, who died recently, neatly summarized much of Russian reality today.
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  • What Do State And Local Governments Do?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 30, 2011

    Those who wish to dismantle public services in the U.S. seem to share a general belief – accepted, to some extent, even by people who generally support public sector spending – that government is a massive, incompetent blob. At the federal level, I have always found this somewhat strange, since around two-thirds of federal spending goes towards Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and national defense, programs that are generally popular and widely regarded as successful.

    Survey data indicate that people do trust state and local government more than they do federal government, but the level of confidence is still not particularly high. Americans also appear generally unwilling to pay higher taxes to preserve public services (except for education), and most accept that state and local government is too large and much of it is superfluous. But when people are asked about specific programs, they tend to respond favorably. This suggests, among other things, that people may have general perceptions of "government" without full knowledge of all the roles government plays.

    So, I thought it might be useful to take a quick look at how public dollars actually are spent. After all, it’s our money, and it’s always good to keep track of how our elected officials are spending it.

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  • Suppressing Democracy

    by Matthew Di Carlo on June 28, 2011

    At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

    It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

    There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

    Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

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