Charters & Choice

The mathlete edition

U.S. mathletes, career-focused charter schools, Minecraft, and the teacher quality gap. 

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Dan Goldhaber, Lesley Lavery, and Roddy Theorbald, "Uneven playing field? Assessing the teacher quality gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students," Educational Researcher (June 2015).


Mike:              Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at And now please join me in welcoming my co-host, the American Ninja Warrior of education reform, Alyssa Schwenk.

Alyssa:           You know Mike, I think the first time I hosted you called me, what's-her-name, the woman who did really really well on ...

Mike:              Casey something-or-other.

Alyssa:           Casey. It's glad to have some thematic continuity.

Mike:              Well, because it is summertime, which means that American Ninja Warrior is back and that means in the Petrilli household we are all about that show. Do you watch it? It is so much fun.

Alyssa:           I have seen some clips on YouTube. It seems insane. It seems like I would probably make it, maybe through half of the first obstacle.

Mike:              Yeah, this goes on my good shows for kids list. It's wholesome entertainment. They tell these uplifting stories, and then the kids are also excited to go to the playground and pretend to play on American Ninja Warrior.

Alyssa:           Have you guys ever set up a Petrilli Ninja Warrior course in the backyard?

Mike:              Oh, yeah. Well, it's best to go to a playground and do it where there's monkey bars and stuff like that. Absolutely. We were also at a resort recently in Georgia that had this thing called Aqua Island, which was like American Ninja Warrior, on these big blow up things in the middle of a lake which was awesome.

Alyssa:           Now that sounds like fun.

Mike:              It was amazing. Okay. Speaking of amazing, so many amazing things to talk about this week. Let's get started, Ellen. Let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Alyssa:           Last week, US mathletes took first place at the International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time since 1994. Does this mark the end of America's international education lag?

Mike:              First of all Alyssa, I've gotta ask, were you a mathlete in high school? Did you participate in any of these academic contests?

Alyssa:           Not in high school but I was on my sixth grade math bee team. We did make it to state. It was interesting. That followed me through high school too, I'm going to say.

Mike:              The state championship, that was the Iowa State Championship.

Alyssa:           Yes. We did not place in the top ten which was a source of pain and humiliation for our teacher.

Mike:              Okay. This is good news. Right? We should be excited about these guys. We read up on this a little bit. I'll show you a sample problem that these guys had to solve.

Alyssa:           So hard.

Mike:              I have no idea. Is it Calculus? What is it? I don't even know what it is.

Alyssa:           I think it's Algebra. They apparently can't use Calculus. I was reading a lot of the rules. I pulled a question. I couldn't read it out loud to you because I don't know how to interpret it.

Mike:              Can I admit it's like when I read these research studies like NBER studies and I get to the formulas and I'm just like, "All right. Skipping that part."

Alyssa:           You can tell me. I wouldn't tell Amber.

Mike:              All right. I won't tell Amber. Nobody tell Amber. What does this mean, Alyssa? Does this mean that the woes of our high achieving students in America, our gifted kids, are over? That we now can consider that our high achievers in the US are doing just fine, thank you very much? Is that how you would take it?

Alyssa:           Absolutely not. This means that we had six kids do really really really really well on one international math competition. While that's great, the US is also scoring in the top three or five for the last 21 years that we haven't exactly won the competition. We've been scoring lower in PISA and international rankings overall in that time frame.

Mike:              That's right. It's like the athletic Olympics. Right?

Alyssa:           Mm-hmm.

Mike:              We do well in those Olympics partly because we're a big country. That's certainly helps. Partly because we have a handful of incredibly gifted athletes that do well competing on the international stage. That does not mean that we are the fittest nation on earth.

Alyssa:           Right. Michael Phelps, he's not only a gifted athlete but he a ton of opportunities that he could take advantage of. He had these great training programs and access to those. The analogy [stands 00:03:49]. Not every kid has those things in this country and not every kid is Michael Phelps.

Mike:              Right. We still have a long way to go in terms of raising achievement including at the top of the spectrum. It also means that America is still fat. That's what we're saying.

Alyssa:           Yes. America is still fat is the key takeaway here.

Mike:              Yeah. We're not talking P-H-A-T fat.

Alyssa:           No, but we're not that either.

Mike:              Okay. Topic number two.

Alyssa:           This week's op-ed by Robert Schwartz makes the case for career focus charter schools. Do you agree with this approach?

Mike:              Yeah. This op-ed in the Education Gadfly this week by Bob Schwartz who is leading the Pathways to Prosperity project at Harvard and really inspired my thinking on this quite a bit and got me to really understand the importance of career and technical education. He comes out and very clearly says, "This is why of course not all charter schools, but the charter sector as a whole should embrace career and technical education." There are very few CTE focused charter schools, but charters are well positioned to do this. Right? Alyssa, talk a little bit about the particular model that he is so excited about.

Alyssa:           He talks a lot about the early college/high school and then as the National Academy Foundation as potential models that charters can adopt. Both of these have done a really great job of connecting community colleges and industry in an area to the schools to really align what the kids are learning to the skills that they need to know to be successful and to earn a solid salary as adults. That's really what we're looking for. We're looking for ways that we can turn high school kids into high performing, high earning individuals who are solid participants in the middle class. That's something that we're lacking in a lot of schools necessarily. We are only about one-fourth of kids earn a four-year degree by the age of 25. This is a way that we can get more kids into strong and good paying jobs I think.

Mike:              Yeah. You notice, again, and we're talking about career education. The proposal he's making is early college. Instead of early college meaning early four-year college degrees, which is what of the early college programs are doing. A big focus on getting kids into and onto four-year college campuses and thinking about those routes, is to focus on technical colleges, community colleges and technical fields. There are a few examples of people doing that, but to do more of that so career academies plus early college high schools plus the charter piece makes everything easier. It makes it easier to hire teachers who may not have certifications but have the content expertise, they have the job expertise. Easier to bring these partnerships together. Easier to think about partnering up with community colleges. Yet, for some reason, we just haven't seen much of this in the charter sector yet, and here's hoping that changes.

Alyssa:           Yep.

Mike:              Okay. Topic number three.

Alyssa:           A recent NPR story looks at the extremely popular online game Minecraft and asks, "Is this good for kids?" Mike, you're a parent. What do you think?

Mike:              I'm so torn on these things. If people have been reading my blog over the years, you know that I'm torn on this. One the one hand our kids have Waldorf preschools. The Waldorf philosophy is there should be basically zero screen time or extremely limited until they're maybe 10 or 11 or 12.

Alyssa:           That old?

Mike:              Yeah. This is popular. These schools are popular in Silicon Valley even where some of these Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs, they see the value of screens in general but they don't want their kids anywhere near it. They want to protect this idyllic romantic childhood where you're outside running and playing in the fields. Yet, it does seem like some of these video games and apps have some value. Minecraft is very much a creative enterprise. It's engineering or engineering-esque, so maybe it's not so bad.

Alyssa:           Yeah. I mean, for me Minecraft is something that's just come out of nowhere in the last couple weeks. I hadn't heard of it but it's so popular with teens.

Mike:              Where have you been Alyssa? It's not out of the last couple of weeks. Until you saw it on the cover the The New Yorker, you'd never heard of it? Come on!

Alyssa:           Actually, yes. It's completely come out of the blue for me. I don't know. I don't see a lot of young children much these days. Does your oldest son ... He's in elementary school now. Does he play it?

Mike:              He's 7. He's not a fan of Minecraft though. Now after seeing all this stuff I'm like, "Hey, come on. Maybe give it a chance." I think he may get into it later. He's been into Clash of Clans lately which sounds terrible. It's actually not. Not violent. The premise is violent. You go marauding and attacking other clans, but it's actually-

Alyssa:           That's violent.

Mike:              You don't actually do any of the marauding. It's more strategy and it's fun and it's social. Anyway, all of these things, I guess I would take the Buddhist approach here. Everything in moderation. Try to find the middle pathway. Don't prohibit it, but certainly keep on eye on kids doing too much of it. Let the pediatricians of the world worry that kids are going to sit around doing nothing but playing video games instead of getting out there and running around. That's a reasonable concern.

Alyssa:           Yup. I agree.

Mike:              One last point on this though. New finding came out about teenage pregnancy and teenage sex. That it continues to plummet in percentage of teenagers saying that they're having sex is down. Particularly among boys to which I say, "Video games." That's good. If kids are playing video games instead of having sex, I'm all for that.

Alyssa:           Okay. All right then.

Mike:              Now that I've embarrassed Alyssa, that is all the time we've got for ‘Pardon the Gadfly.’ Now it’s time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute. Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:           Thanks, Mike. 

Mike:              Amber, we were just talking about something earlier on the earlier segment. I want to know from a research perspective. We see two trends. Kids are playing a lot more video games these times, especially boys. Teenagers, especially boys, reported having less sex these days. How can we prove that these two things are related?

Amber:           That's a really tough correlation you're trying to draw there.

Mike:              Don't you think it might be related?

Amber:           It seems like it could be, but it's not a research study I'd want to be conducting.

Mike:              The boys are having less sex because they're playing video games instead, and because they girls know they're playing more video games.

Amber:           Are boys and girls supposed to be having sex as Miss Conservative Person here. I mean, hello, these are boys.

Mike:              They're not supposed to be. Right.

Amber:           Right.

Mike:              We're saying this is good. We do not want them ...

Amber:           Want them ...

Mike:              We would prefer for teenagers ... Fewer teenagers to be having sex.

Amber:           Got you.

Mike:              We just have trade-offs. Other people are like, "We don't want them playing video games all the time." I'm saying that's an easy choice. Okay?

Amber:           Yes. It is an easy choice. Although you know this pixel ... Have you seen this pixel movie where the video games come back and attack everybody? Like Pac Man comes to life.

Mike:              No.

Amber:           It's the latest Adam Sandler movie. It's going to be interesting, speaking of video games, but I digress.

Mike:              That will happen eventually. Okay. What do you have for us this week?

Amber:           All right. We got a new study out by Dan Goldhaber. Always liking Dan's studies. Good old Dan. On Even Playing Field is the title. Provides loads of descriptive data that documents the extent and depth of the teacher quality gap between advantage and disadvantaged kids. Dan and his colleagues basically show that disadvantaged kids, once again, get the short end of the stick when it comes to high quality teachers. What's different about this study is that they look at different definitions of teacher quality. Experience, teacher license, exam, value added estimates, so both inputs and output measures.

                        They look at various ways to define student disadvantage, so free and reduced price lunch status, under represented minority or low prior academic performance. They slice it on both sides multiple ways. Okay? They use data from Washington state for grades 3 through 10 for the 2011-2012 school year. They look at 4th grade classrooms in particular just to zero in on that grade, but then they replicate their findings for the other grades. I'm just going to give you a short litany of the findings which all point in the same direction. Okay? The distribution of prior value added estimates for teachers of student on free/reduced priced lunch is routinely lower than the distribution for non-free and reduced lunch 4th graders.

                        Low-income 4th grades are more likely to have a teacher with a low teacher licensure exam score. The distribution of lower quality teachers is most inequitable within the most disadvantaged districts. One of the biggest teacher quality gaps occurs in the distribution of 7th grade teachers with low value added scores. This is just one little specific factoid here. Almost 20% of low-performing 7th grade math students are assigned to a teacher with a low prior year VAM estimate, versus just 7% of the higher performing kids. It goes on and on.

                        In short, the bottom line is disadvantaged kids are less likely to be taught by a high quality teacher in nearly every grade level, no matter how you define high quality, no matter how you define disadvantaged kids. Then, they have a section at the end that talks about: Why is this happening? What are the various theories? We know that for instance principals tend to give the Advance Placement jobs, the favorable assignments, to the teachers who are higher performers. We know this, teacher agreements for instance don't allow senior teachers to be transferred involuntarily, so on and so forth. We can talk about why this happens, but the bottom reason is that it continues to happen.

Mike:              I don't find the AP thing very convincing. At least specifically AP, because that's 12th grade for the most part. Right? That's not mostly what we're talking about here. There may be some places where there are some tracks or ability groups and things like that where that comes into play. This is important because forever we assumed that there was a big teacher quality gap when you looked at inputs. Then, when the value added stuff started coming out, I thought that there were a few studies that started raising some questions instead.

                        Maybe that gap isn't as big as we thought. That if you look at value added, teacher distribution is actually more equitable than we used to think. Now, Dan is saying, "No, no, no. It actually still looks very bad." What I'm always confused about, Amber, is whether there's some circular logic in here at all. In other words, are we sure the value added methodology is doing a good job taking into account the fact that it is harder to teach disadvantaged kids or low-performing kids. In other words, is it that the worry that teachers who teach lower performing kids, it is harder to have a high VAM score with those kids than it is at higher performing.

Amber:           That's the Matt Chingos rationale.

Mike:              That's certainly the case for teacher observations. Right? That it is harder to do well in teacher observations when you've got a bunch of low-performers in your classroom. What is the question with VAM? They're starting from a lower point, so you should be able to bring them up to a higher point, but if they continue to have disadvantage at home, etc, etc, than maybe it is also that one surprise. It's the school level too. Right? There's some stuff that's been debated this week in DC that these schools that are the more advantaged schools, the lower poverty schools, the schools with high proficiency rates also tend to be the ones with higher growth rates. You say, "Really? Can that be true?" Or is that something about the methodology?

Amber:           Right. When I think too what the research around VAM has shown consistently is that it's better identifying the teachers that are at the tail ends. Right? The high-performing and the low-performing. I think if you got a room full of VAM experts in the room and they've done this before, most will agree that that mass distribution in the center is really hard to parse. We have better precision at the tail ends than in the middle which is a problem. Right? That's was Eric and others have been saying, "We stand on more credibility." Talking about the bottom 5% because we can identify those teachers more reliably than the others.

Mike:              All right. So, bottom line is Dan Goldhaber tells us, "Yes, we do indeed have a teacher quality gap." It's something that we need to worry about because it's really bad for disadvantaged kids. Okay, Thank you, Amber. That's all the time we've got for this week. Until next week.

Alyssa:           I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Mike:              I'm Mike Petrilli. The Education Gadfly Show, signing off. 

  • Teachers at “no-excuses” charter schools are widely thought to fit in a single, aggrieved category: twenty-two years old, working twenty-two hours a day, and earning $22,000 per year. It’s assumed that the exhausting daily schedule and prolonged school year, so crucial to the mission of lifting disadvantaged kids out of poverty, also ends up churning many depleted young educators out of the profession. But according to a new analysis from Education Week, that phenomenon may be overstated. The item, which builds on a more in-depth look published in the same outlet last month, points to Education Department data showing that charter teacher turnover dropped by 5.3 percent between the 2008–09 and 2012–13 school years—even while it ticked up slightly in traditional district schools. Imperfect collection methods and the sector’s rapid recent expansion make the signs hard to read, but this development certainly doesn’t qualify as bad news.
  • And it’s not the only upbeat story this week. In an American nerd triumph worthy of the great Rick Moranis, Team American took gold in last week’s International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time since 1994. The scrappy team of adolescents who will someday employ us all edged out
  • ...
Robert Schwartz

Let’s begin with some data. Fewer than 33 percent of young people succeed in attaining a four-year degree by age twenty-five. If you disaggregate by income, only about 15 percent in the bottom third of the distribution attain a degree. In the bottom quintile, it’s half that. If you look at graduation rates among those who enroll, only about 30 percent in the bottom two income quintiles complete within six years. The economic returns of “some college” (i.e., those who drop out with no degree or occupational certificate) are no different than for those with only a high school diploma.

Finally, nearly half of those young people who attain a four-year degree are struggling in this labor market: 44 percent are underemployed, working in jobs that historically have not required a four-year degree, or working part-time while seeking full time employment. Meanwhile, there is rising evidence that those with two-year technical degrees (AAS) are out-earning average young BA holders.

It’s no longer a matter only of how much education you have, but what skills you have acquired and how well they match up with what the economy requires.

While it obviously should be a critical national priority...

Ashley LiBetti Mitchel

As my colleague Sara Mead has written, we recently completed an analysis of state policies that affect charter/pre-K collaboration. In the analysis, we tried to figure out what a charter school would need to do and know in order to access state pre-K funds. In each state, we ask: Can charter schools offer state-funded pre-K? What’s the process for doing so? And how many charter schools serve preschoolers?

We used this information to rank states based on how hospitable an environment they offer for charter schools seeking to serve preschoolers. There are a few states where it is relatively easy for charters to offer pre-K. Washington, D.C. and Oklahoma top our list, with Wisconsin and Texas close behind. In these states, charter schools are one option in a network of diverse pre-K providers.

But in a majority of states, charter schools face numerous barriers to offering pre-K. Lots of these barriers are common across states, while others are unique to particular states. For example, low pre-K funding (less than 75 percent of what charters receive to serve K–12 students) creates a disincentive to offering pre-K in twenty-two states (and affects all potential providers, not just charter schools)....

Jack McCarthy

Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel have done a great public service by providing a detailed study of how the early care and K–12 education policy landscape creates barriers to collaboration. It is good to see the Thomas B. Fordham Institute focusing its considerable knowledge and prestige on thinking about this opportunity.

From the perspective of someone who has been involved with charter schools since 1993, adding preschool and pre-kindergarten arrows to the education reform quiver has been a no-brainer since 2005. That was the year we launched AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

The science behind early learning is clear and compelling. With growing numbers of children living in poverty-stricken and fragmented family households, the need is clear and compelling too.

Resources are already being invested. By some estimates, federal, state, and local governments (as well as corporations and individuals) spend $70 billion each year on myriad programs for early care and education. But as the study illustrates, the sector is highly fragmented, lacks quality, and is not connected to K–12 education in any meaningful way. Few states currently even offer full-day kindergarten.

What's most lacking is a clear, compelling goal, so let me suggest one: We must...

Last week, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a new report authored by my colleague Ashley LiBetti Mitchel and me on charter schools and pre-K. Ashley’s going to be sharing more about the report later today, but I wanted to answer some questions that came up a lot in our research: Why should charter schools be able to offer pre-K? And why should we care?  There are several reasons: 

  1. Supply. Even if universal pre-K (or even universal pre-K for poor kids) were fully funded today, we wouldn’t have enough high-quality providers to serve all kids. The challenges that New York City is facing as it expands access offer a case in point here. Getting great pre-K to all the kids who need it will require growing the supply of great providers. Charter schools are one potential source of this supply.
  2. Diversity. Both the charter movement and most state pre-K programs recognize that there is value in a diversity of providers that can offer different models and services to meet the needs of kids and families. In K–12, the charter sector has helped make new types of options, such as Montessori, Core Knowledge, or Dual Language schools, available to families who value them. Including
  3. ...
Tim Scott

Editor’s note: Last week, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) sponsored an amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars to follow low-income children to the schools of their choice. It failed, 45–51. Still, we found his speech to be a particularly eloquent case for school choice generally. The transcript from the Congressional Record follows; we recommend watching it as well.

Mr. President, I rise today regarding my amendment No. 2132, specifically targeting an opportunity to improve education for those kids attending Title I schools. This is a portability amendment. As we debate this Education bill, we must ensure our focus is in the right place. Education policy is not about protecting a bureaucracy, it should not be about empowering Washington, and it cannot be about an endless, fruitless push for some sort of one-size-fits-all type of system. This conversation must be about kids—5-year-olds and 15-year-olds—and their unlimited potential.

I believe without question that each and every child has within them a reservoir of potential. We should make sure that the access to experiencing the fullness of their potential is available to all Americans throughout this country. Too many of our Nation’s children...

Chris Barbic

Editor’s note: Chris Barbic announced today his decision to step down as the head of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, a position he has held since 2011. Under his leadership, the Achievement School District has shown great promise, as described in two Fordham Institute reports by Nelson Smith. He released a public letter to explain his decision and offer a number of lessons he learned during his tenure. Those lessons are what follow, in Chris’s own words.

We do far better when we trust our teachers and school leaders. In the ASD, we trust educators by giving them the power to make the decisions that matter most in schools—staffing, program, budget, and time. They are the ones—not I or any “central” administrator—making things happen in schools, and with the right structure in place, this cycle of fast learning and educator-led decision-making will continue. By removing the bureaucracy—and putting the power in the hands of nonprofit school operators—we can eliminate the vicious cycle of the hard-charging superintendent needing to “reform” a central office once every three years.

Autonomy cannot outpace talent. All of our schools in the ASD are given autonomy. The difference between the high performers...

The little people's planet edition

The ESEA opt-out amendments, low-income college-goers, Nevada’s education savings accounts, and teacher pensions.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Leslie Kan and Chad Alderman, "Eating Their Young: How Cuts to State Pension Plans Fall on New Workers," Bellwether Education Partners (July 2015).

Mike:              Hello, this is your host Mike Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at and now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Pluto of education reform, Robert Pondiscio!

Robert:           That means I'm no longer a planet?

Mike:              You're no longer a dwarf planet. You're bigger and icier than we thought.

Robert:           Nice save.

Mike:              How about that. Hey, it's Pluto week. This has been fun. Have you been following along at all, Robert?

Robert:           The only thing I heard was interesting. The guy who discovered Pluto's ashes were put on a satellite like some twenty, twenty-five years ago. Not a satellite, a spacecraft, and they are this week making their closest approach to Pluto.

Mike:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert:           Discovered and named Pluto these ashes, little bits of it are out there right now.

Mike:              Oh they're on the satellite? Oh, that's very interesting. I've been thinking about how the technology out there is 2006 era technology because this thing has taken that long to get out the ... what is it? Nine billion miles or some crazy-long trip to get out there.

                        As a result ,it may not be as high-tech as we wish because, for example, it can't take all the pictures and the data and transmit it at the same time. I wonder, we probably have more computing power on our iPhones at this point than it has.

Robert:           On Apollo 11.

Mike:              Because of 2006, right? Guess what, it's kind of like the No Child Left Behind Act, it's still out there in orbit. Flying around.

Robert:           A little bit about broadcast, this is fascinating. Broadcast, terrestrial broadcasts, then never go away. They just continue leaving the Earth at the speed of light forever which means I think, right around now, old I Love Lucy shows are just reaching Alpha Centauri.

Mike:              Yeah, very cool.

Robert:           What other civilization is going to see that?

Mike:              We've all seen this is the sci-fi movies. We know. They start worrying about us. They see the clips of the Hitler clips and stuff and they start saying, "We got to go save those people!"

Robert:           No intelligent life there. Not worth saving.

Mike:              Well I think when the Donald Trump tapes reach them they'll certainly still believe that.

Robert:           I believe we'll be in the home ... or worse by the time that happens. By the the time it gets there.

Mike:              Okay, we've got a lot to cover. It is the middle of the summer, but man things are hot in education reform. Let's play Pardon the Gadfly. Clara, get us started.

Clara:              Last week The House passed the ESEA amendment that would allow students to opt out of state tests without penalizing schools. Thoughts?

Mike:              Robert, I understand that Mike Lee in the senate has a similar amendment, maybe it goes even further. Look, this is a very tricky issue.

Robert:           Is it ever.

Mike:              What this is about is saying that, if a parent decides to opt their kids out, that basically the school and the district and the state should be held harmless. The issue is that right now, all those entities are supposed to have at least ninety-five percent of their kids tested. The reason is because if you don't have that rule in place, then you would create a perverse incentive for schools to tell Johnny to stay home on test day if they don't think Johnny's going to pass the test.

                        This is now clashing with this desire to give parents this right to opt out if they don't see the value in their kids taking this test. If these amendments go through and become law, this could wreak havoc for all sorts of things, Robert, because if you have lots and lots of kids opting out, suddenly the test score data isn't worth much. You can't use it for accountability, you can't even use it for research. A lot of researchers freaked out. On the other hand, do we really want to be fighting parents over this?

Robert:           Well this is so complicated, right? I keep saying on this podcast I've got a complicated relationship with assessment and you just crystallized it perfectly. On the one hand, if you're all for parental choice and prerogative you can say, "Well, no except in testing those you have t.,"

                        We have to respect parental choice, I would argue. We have allowed the assessment tail to wag the educational dog and this is the price we're paying. We have to ... and I'm not going to sit here say I know what the answer is, but we have to get right on testing.

Mike:              That's fair. Look, the J. Green's of the world out there blame Common Core. I tend to blame teacher evaluations as the straw that broke the camel's back. These test based evaluations done, not quite very thoughtfully, in many places. Then there's also just the transition issue. These tests don't count right now, which I think is the right call.

                        The tests don't count for kids. They don't count for schools as we're transitioning, but that makes it a lot harder to say, "Therefore kids you got to sit down and take the test anyway," especially high school kids who are taking oodles of AP tests and SATs and ACTs and everything else at the same time. A couple of years from now we get through this transition, they start to count in some positive way for kids.

                        They say, "Look, you get a good score on your Smarter Balance, you don't have to take the ACT you can use that score to get into your state university." Some of these problems maybe go away. In the meantime we've got to muddle through.

Robert:           Well, it's be nice if we could do more than muddle. Ti would be nice if we can figure out what the correct relationship is with testing in our schools but I think you hit the nail on the head. It really comes down to the accountability measures.

                        It just defies credulity to say, "You're going to make teachers accountable, individual kids test results and then be surprised that that testing dominates the educational experience. Some of the Gordian knot has to be done. I'm not going to sit there and say I  know how to do it, but that has to be uncoupled somehow.

Mike:              All right. Topic number two ... Oh, by the way, Robert, hypothetically if you were still teaching and it was not summer, do you think you would be having you kids follow along with this whole Pluto thing and debating, is it a planet, is it a dwarf planet? Who gets to decide these things?

Robert:           That's a great question. What I teach right now is Civics so I think I would be more ... it's been a great summer for Civics since so many things have ...

Mike:              Should we have funding fro NASA? There's a Civics question.

Robert:           If I had my class now these are great topics to debate.

Mike:              All right. Topic number two Clara.

Clara:              A recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals just how difficult it is to get low-income kids to and through college. Why aren't more high-achieving low-income kids graduating from college, and what can be done to fix the sobering trend?

Mike:              You heard about this this week, Robert. Talking about some of the young people that you have been teaching at Democracy Prep and the tough road ahead from them. The numbers are what, nine percent according to some measures of low-income kids get to and through four-year degrees. Others put it at fourteen percent, either way we're talking about very small numbers.

Robert:           Yeah, and I've written about this for a couple of years in a couple of different places because, look I'm charter guy, I'm all about charters and choice and whatnot and I left a very nice career to work with low-income kids of color in the South Bronx and elsewhere so this is the important topic personally. The feel-good narrative around charter schools for years has been, had not always been for all the right reasons. First generation kids going to college a hundred percent of the graduating class going to college.

                        There has been less attention historically to what happens once kids after they get to college. Here we're seeing some really encouraging developments but the numbers are still kind of depressing. The big study that everybody remembers within five years ago was Kip and God bless them, they didn't have to do this, but Kip monitored their own student performance and found, if I'm remembering right, thirty-three percent of kids who had passed through Kip Wright Middle School ended up graduating college within six years. Now you can look at that and say ...

Mike:              It's gone up since then. I think they're getting close to fifty percent at this point?

Robert:           I have not ... I've asked, frankly, Kip, I want those numbers. Send them to me," I've asked a couple of times and you keep hearing, "Well, they're getting better," but I want the data. If the data is really heading in the right direction. The sobering thing that came out in was in the NCES study that showed, and it was longitudinal.

                        They started tracking kids in 2002 and at that point, something like eight out of ten kids rich or black, white, et cetera said as high school sophomores, "Yes, I want to go to college." That's where the divide happened. Even high-achieving low-income kids. This was the big news. High achieving, low-income kids were just as likely to graduate from college forty-one percent of them as low-achieving high income.

Mike:              Yes, or middling achieving.

Robert:           Mediocre for lack of a better description. That shows that it's not about preparation or it's not just about preparation. That something else is going on. We're a lot better than we sued to be at getting low-income kids to college, we got a long way to go at getting them through college.

Mike:              Right, and this is an important point. I've certainly made the case that we still have a huge problem with college preparation. That if you look at the numbers, we're still at about thirty-five or forty percent of kids with the reading and math skills to enter college, college-ready. Guess how many kids these days are graduating from college? About thirty-five or forty percent. Now, those are not the exact same kids, as you say, the low-income kids are under-represented in terms of graduation, even those kids that are well-prepared. Some of these rich kids are over-represented; that they get through even thought they don't have the reading and math skills.

                        There is something else that's going on. I've looked at other numbers that basically show if you look out into the early 20's almost every high school graduate at this point is taking a shot at college. It is we basically have universal college educational at this point in terms of trying it. Universal access. The problem is they're not completing. They're not getting those degrees, preparation's a big point, but it's not just preparation even these kids at least have the reading and math skills. Maybe they're under-prepared in other ways but they've got the reading and math skills, but they're still not making it through and that's when you start looking at the costs of college.

Robert:           I think some of the most interesting work has been done by Kip and other so-called high-achieving and no-excuses charter schools where they really focus on getting kids into not just the best possible match but the right possible match. It turns out, and I'm going to paint with a broad brush here, small private colleges seem to have a much higher graduation rate with low-income first generation college-goers. There's been a big research public research universities. They're now funneling more kids to say the Franklin and Marshall as opposed to Boise State.

                        You know Boise State, they may do a great job, but it does look like where kids go to school and the supports that are there for them matter a lot. The degree to which some smaller, more inclusive schools are able to keep skids attached and persisting. If you think about this, if you are a affluent kid and whose parents went to college, you have a lot of this stuff baked into your life. Your struggles and then your parents said, "O, go talk to the Bursar, go talk to this professor." The process is de-mystified for you. This sounds counter-intuitive but even small problems like a bus to get home can be disabling for someone who is a little bit of a fish out of water.

Mike:              All right topic number three. I think the topic is Pluto a dwarf planet or a real planet? No, just kidding. What's topic number three, Clara?

Clara:              In a recently penned blog post Howard Fuller calls Nevada's education Savings Account Program "A gift to the opponents of the parent-choice movement." What does he mean by this and do you share the same concerns?

Mike:              Howard has been making this case, and he has the right to make it. He's got the Civil Rights credentials absolutely going way back to say, "Hey, I support school choice because I see it as a way for poor kids to get opportunities they don't have that rich kids today have plenty of," and that's why he supports school choice programs that are targeted at low-income kids and he looks at the Nevada program and look, I wrote about this too. I said that, "This Nevada ESA thing does not does appear to be designed for low-income kids."

                        It is not likely to be ... there's not enough money, not enough accountability. If you want to help low-income kids in Nevada, you're much better off looking at what Nevada is doing around charter schools, high-quality charter schools. Now, I still support the ESA thing because I think it's an interesting experiment and you're going to get some innovation out of it and find some new models that we may not have seen before, but Howard says, "Look, you support school choice because it's a way to help poor kids. If it's not about helping poor kids, he's not for it.

Robert:           Am I allowed to disagree with Howard Fuller?

Mike:              You absolutely are.

Robert:           Howard Fuller. And I’m a punk.

Mike:              A dwarf planet. Robert, is the way we put it, yes.

Robert:           I say I've got a complicated relationship with testing. I have an uncomplicated relationship with choice, I'm for it. Hearing it at full stop. I got to choose my kid's school. I want you to be able to choose your kid's school. Where I guess I would push Mr. Fuller on this ... because I'm earnestly curious about this; does he not see or agree with the idea that choice might create the conditions that will create more high-quality options for the kids he cares about?

                        I suspect that he's looking at the existing universe of choices in Nevada and elsewhere and saying, "Okay, all of you are enabling a habit right now is to get the educational…well, so to speak, into those schools. My kids are going to be left outside. Is it not true, Dr. Fuller, that this kind of program creates the incentive to expand the pie. To create more high-quality options?

Mike:              Well, it could. You could design it that way, but I think in this case the details matter. It's five thousand bucks, right? Which even in low-spending Nevada is not enough most likely to provide a high-quality education.

Robert:           Nevada. New York City, where I live, is three or four hundred.

Mike:              Well that may be tuition but that's not what it costs. That's why they're going out of business. The point here is, if you want to make this work in Nevada what's likely to happen is that middle income or high income parents are going to top off that five K, right? They're going to go to a school, now maybe the Catholic school they've only got to pay an extra thousand dollars a year, and even low-income parents in most cases can, we have seen in other programs can figure out a way to scrape that together, but a lot of the other options are going to be ten thousand dollars a year, right?

                        So in that case, he's right. This is a program that's mostly going to benefit, going to subsidize the education of better-off kids. At least if it's being used fro traditional, private education. If you're Howard Fuller, you say, "Look, I sure I simply," maybe he'd be willing to support universal voucher if it was going to be funded high enough so that the poor kids actually had a shot at getting into high-quality private schools.

Robert:           If you're an educational entrepreneur right now, don't you want to set up shop in Nevada?

Mike:              Yeah, but I'm not going to serve poor kids.

Robert:           Why not?

Mike:              It's not enough money to serve them well.

Robert:           You can serve a lot of them.

Mike:              How?

Robert:           Nevada's a fairly low-income state.

Mike:              I know, but it's still, you're looking at five K. This is the argument that Mike Goldstein made in our Wonkathon was that it's just not enough money or maybe was it Goldstein or was it Neerav but that ... maybe it was Neerav There's just not enough money there to make a difference. We've seen that with those charter schools. You look at a place like Ohio, you look at some of the other low-performing charter states. One problem is accountability. The other problem is low funding. It's just really hard to run a great charter school at seven K a year. It's going to be the same thing with the essays.

Robert:           Are you saying that funding matters?

Mike:              I am saying that funding matters. Absolutely.

Robert:           Who are you? What have you done with Mike?

Mike:              I am a full-sized planet. Thank you. I am the Saturn of the education policy today, Robert. All right, that;'s all the time we've got for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everyone's favorite. Amber's Research Minute. Welcome back, Amber.

Amber:           Thank you, Mike.

Mike:              We've been chatting about Pluto. Two questions. One) Have you been following along? Number two) is it a planet or a dwarf planet in your opinion?

Amber:           I haven't been following along, but my husband has. I believe he says it's a planet.

Mike:              It's a planet!

Robert:           It's planet again.

Amber:           Yes.

Mike:              No, no, no. It's still officially a dwarf planet, but this mission may help it get bumped back up to planet status because they are finding it's bigger than they thought before.

Robert:           Wait can you call it a planet? Is it not just a little planet?

Mike:              That was a good one.

Amber:           Somebody's going to get upset by that. I have a feeling.

Mike:              That's very true.

Amber:           When you watch it on TLC it's Little People. It's not dwarfs.

Mike:              It's not dwarfs. Exactly. Oh, so now you're comparing those people to little planets, huh?

Amber:           I'm not following planets, but I'm following TLC little people. What does that say about me.

Mike:              Amber ... well, it says we'd better shift into education research. Okay, what you got for us this week?

Amber:           About a report about whether education partner that examines changes to teacher pensions. Sorry, got to do a teacher pension study. They look at the last thirty years and how these things have changed. The report title, this is great, "Eating Their Young," That's a ... I don't even know if Fordham would do that title.

Mike:              We might, but we would put a dinosaur on the cover eating its young.

Amber:           Yeah. Historical data set, they use it basically had eighty-seven retirement systems from all fifty states. They look at the data from 1982 to 2012. They look at DB plans and they make these hypothetical estimates for newly hired twenty-five year olds.

Mike:              DB being defined benefits old-fashioned pension systems?

Amber:           Right, not the other, newer kind. All right. Local trends that they found. First of all, the median state offers a lower nesting period so that's how long teachers have to be on before they can pass it, compared to several decades ago. It used to be ten years and now what do you think the average is?

Robert:           Five?

Amber:           Five. Bingo. Number two, states began lowering the normal retirement age in the 1990's and that continued into the 2000's but in recent years they have increased the retirement age, which obviously decreases benefits, which means fewer years to collect the pension. In 2012 alone, nineteen plans increased their normal retirement age from age fifty-five to age ...

Robert:           Sixty-two and a half.

Amber:           Yeah. What do you think?

Mike:              Fifty-eight.

Amber:           Fifty-eight. Did you peek over my shoulder?

Mike:              I did not!

Amber:           Number three. Average employee contribution rates remained relatively constant throughout the 80's 90's and 2000's but they increased after the recession and I didn't put those figures in there. Anyway, they're lowering the teachers net retirement compensation is the bottom line. Then they go into some stuff about new teachers and they basically say, "When benefits increase they increase to everyone, but when they get cut, they decrease only fro new workers," which we've had some other studies tell us that.

                        For example, couple little more factoids on this stuff. Although pension benefits for career teachers spend only only one percent from 1982 to 2012, teachers who were hired in 2012 ans stayed ten years, would qualify for an inflation-adjusted pension benefit worth one percentage less than their peers who began in 1982?

Robert:           What a great question.

Mike:              I don't know. Twenty percent?

Robert:           I'm going to guess fifteen.

Amber:           Twenty-five, you guys were both kind of close. All right, here we go.

Robert:           That's a lot of money though.

Amber:           Illinois, is our poster child for terrible pensions, right? An Illinois teacher would have to work ... give me a second to get the question. A new Illinois teacher would not be a positive return ... keep your teacher hats on ... would not see a positive return on their contributions unless she served more than how many decades in her system?

Mike:              Oh, my gosh.

Amber:           How long has she got to work before she sees retirement?

Mike:              Three decades.

Amber:           What do you think, Robert?

Robert:           I would say that. About three.

Amber:           Yeah. Well it's a little more than two decades. Both of you guys are in the ballpark. Last factoid the report closes with. We've heard this before but it's been a while. For every hundred dollars at states and districts contribute to teacher pension plans on average how many dollars goes toward paying down the pension debt?

Robert:           No clue.

Mike:              Yeah, I don't know.

Amber:           Seventy dollars, so that's a lot. I think that was in Bob Strell's report for us as well. Anyway never good news on this topic.

Mike:              It's so hard and ...

Robert:           Germany could bail out a whole other country.

Mike:              That's interesting. I was thinking about that as I had a little Twitter interaction with Mike Klonsky that somehow was about Greece and of course he's out there defending Greece. He's out there defending the Chicago Teacher's Unions too as the bankrupt the state of Illinois. Look, it's tricky because these pensions once they're in place, most state's courts are finding them to be constitutionally protected, which makes me think that what states are going to have to go after instead are going to be retiree healthcare, which is something that I think deserves some attention as well and I'm curious what the trends are there, particularly now that there's Obamacare that I can imagine more states saying, "You know what, teachers, once you're retired and before you are eligible for Medicare you are on your own when it come to that stuff."

Amber:           Those are really accurate ability and union members, aren't they?

Mike:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amber:           Those retirees?

Mike:              Yeah. Yes they are.

Amber:           Take it laying down, right?

Mike:              They are not. All right well interesting and sobering.

Amber:           Was it really Mike? Was it interesting?

Mike:              It was interesting. I felt good about myself. I got many of those questions right. That made it interesting. It was definitely sobering. We don't need to do pensions again for a couple of months.

Amber:           In a couple of months.

Mike:              Okay, all right everybody. Hey! Go Pluto and until next time ...

Robert:           I'm Robert Pondisico.

Mike:              I'm Mike Petrilli. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off. 

There are no grand revelations, but this new report about New York’s robust charter sector from the city’s Independent Budget Office offers useful data on a range of hotly debated topics, including student demographics, attrition, and “backfilling” seats left by departing students.

For starters, it’s good to be reminded just how small that sector is, in spite of its rapid growth. Gotham boasts some of the nation’s highest-profile and most closely watched charters, including Success Academy, KIPP, and Achievement First, but only seventy-two thousand of the city’s 1.1 million school-aged children attend a charter school. And those major players are a fraction of the New York’s charter school scene, which is almost evenly split between network-run schools and independents. Some New York City neighborhoods are particularly charter-rich (Harlem, for instance, enrolls 37 percent of its students in charters as of 2013–2014), but charters remain relatively rare in the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island. The sector also serves an overwhelmingly black and Hispanic population. Charter students are more likely to be poor than traditional Department of Education (DOE) schools, though charters serve smaller concentrations of English language learners and special education students.

Another fascinating bit of data: The controversial practice of...