The Kanye edition

Education in New Orleans, school governance, Common Core-aligned assignments, and charter school openings in NYC.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Andrew Saultz, Dan Fitzpatrick, and Rebecca Jacobsen, "Exploring the Supply Side: Factors Related to Charter School Openings in NYC," Journal of School Choice: International Research and Reform, vol. 9 no. 3 (August 2015). 


Mike:                       Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at Now please join me welcoming my co-host, the Kanye West of education reform.

Robert:                   Let me finish, Mike.

Mike:                       Robert Pondiscio.

Robert:                   The Kanye, huh

Mike:                       It seems a little unfair. I guess he went on and on and on at the MTV Music Awards-

Robert:                   As we're wont to do in the podcast.

Mike:                       As were wont to do, I understand you give a good speech, but a long speech, Robert.

Robert:                   Do I? Is that true?

Mike:                       For 45 minutes?

Robert:                   Look, I'm going to let you finish, but I'm going to run for the White House in 2020, just like Kanye.

Mike:                       Just like Kanye. I remember-

Robert:                   You could be his running mate, it'll be the Kanye West Wing.

Mike:                       That's not bad, yeah. I always thought 2028. I remember as a kid, figuring out, just when would be the right time, depending on my age, and I think I thought 2028 seemed about right.

Robert:                   That's a good question. Is he over thirty-five?

Mike:                       Is he over thirty-five?

Robert:                   Chronologically, I mean. I think we can conclude that maturity wise, he's got a ways to go.

Mike:                       You know, I don't know enough about the man to say these things, Robert.

Robert:                   I know enough, but Kim Kardashian as first lady-

Mike:                       I'm not hanging out with high school kids like you are.

Robert:                   That is true.

Mike:                       Which is good. By the way, in your civics class, I hope you take up some of the maneuvering happening on Capitol Hill. There was a great NPR story about it this week, about how is it that the president can get his Iran deal passed with only thirty-four votes. Turns out this sort of thing happens all the time. It's basically, as they said in the conclusion, NPR, when it's majority rule even when the majority-

Robert:                   Except when it isn't.

Mike:                       When the majority decides it's about the majority wanting to vote against something and let it happen anyway, and you should talk to your civics students about that.

Robert:                   That's a really, really good point.

Mike:                       Very interesting. Okay. Lots to talk about. It is back to school time and man, the internets are a brimming with education news. Things are happening. Let's do it. Clara, let's play Pardon the Gadfly.

Clara:                      Last week marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many commentators, and even two American presidents, lauded the progress New Orleans schools have made since then, but has the NOLA miracle been overblown?

Robert:                   You're really going to, we're going to go there?

Mike:                       We're going to go there, Robert.

Robert:                   You want to get me in trouble.

Mike:                       I do, I do. Look, I sometimes feel like we're watching this debate a little bit because so much of it is going on more on the political left - the leftie reformers versus their colleagues on the left who hate reform and throwing mud at each other about whether New Orleans proves that charter schools work, et cetera. You have a piece in this weeks education Gadfly saying yes, it's been a big success story. That doesn't mean, though, that it is something that could be replicable anywhere else.

Robert:                   Yeah. I feel really badly about this. I don't want to cast dispersion. Look, I'm a charter guy. I'm a reform guy. I get it, honestly, I get it, but I've been reading some of the commentary over the last couple of week sand it does strike me that we're in danger of over promising and under delivering here. This was a unique moment in time, right? A devastation school system that was failing even before then, a unique historical opportunity to just change things all at once. When you do that it attracts talent, it attracts money, it attracts attention. I earnestly wonder whether this is a non-replicable situation. Then, there's the other thing that, come on, let's not overpraise the gains. There's good gains in New Orleans. Did I mention those good gains in New Orleans, Mike, because there's good gains in New Orleans. Are we clear on this? There's good gains in New Orleans, but come on. The question I ask in the piece is if you were a low income family of color in America and you want to get a good education for your family, is New Orleans really the place you want to be right now? In no way do I want that to be interpreted as throwing cold water on what they're doing, but I'd rather be in Boston, I'd rather be in New York, I'd rather be in Washington or any number of states.

Mike:                       Let me push back-

Robert:                   Unfair comparison-

Mike:                       No. I think all that makes a ton of sense. Let's admit. If you're in Boston, you're in good shape if you get into the charter school, which is a big if and a place with caps and limits and all the rest. The other question for me is if you are a city, if you are St. Louis, if you are Dayton, if you are Cleveland, if you are Kansas City, and you have a beleaguered school system, is the model New Orleans or is it someplace else? The question is, look, as you said, New Orleans had this huge influx of talent and money. We know working in Ohio it's hard to attract people to some of these other cities.

Robert:                   Absolutely.

Mike:                       That means you need a different strategy. You say how can we make the teachers that are in our own communities as effective as possible? How can we rely on the homegrown talent here? It just takes a different approach. It may be more along what Memphis is doing, for example, or Nashville or some of these places that look like they are starting to build high quality charter sectors, but it's slower. They're smaller, but maybe in this case, the tortoise will win the race.

Robert:                   You know, and the ed reform ideal is driven by a laudable impatience. That's a great, good thing but I just would be less than honest if I didn't say I worried that in this case by using New Orleans as a potential model, we could get into a situation where our grasp is greater than our reach.

Mike:                       Okay. All right, Clara, so you heard it. Robert Pondiscio isn't impressed by the gains in New Orleans. I'm kidding, I'm kidding!

Robert:                   No, but this is what's going to happen, Mike. I'm going to get angry letters.

Mike:                       All right. Topic number two. Maybe Robert can redeem himself with this next one.

Clara:                      Also last week, Fordham released a new report on school governance that catalogs eight different kinds of governance models, from Jeffersonian to Hamiltonian to everything in-between. Is one model of education governance best?

Mike:                       Well, turns out, the answer is no. If there were a best model, that would have made this report much, much more sexier and we would have gotten a lot more press and our listeners would have heard of it already. Look, this is an important report, one I urge you to check out. It's at least a lot of fun to see where your state falls. Basically, what we're trying to do here is catalog the different states.

Robert:                   Did you just use the word fun in the same sentence with governance?

Mike:                       It is, but here's why, especially if you like political philosophy: we named the different categories after political leaders and thinkers. Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian, Lincoln-onian - is that even a word, I'm not sure. Locke-ian, Platonic or Plato-ic, I don't know.

Robert:                   Which state was the Kanye model?

Mike:                       None of them, thank goodness. Anyway, that's the fun part. The boring part is digging into governance, and yet it matters. We think it matters. Some of these states, the decisions are made in very centralized ways, in other ways it's pretty fragmented. Some places there's a lot of opportunity for public input, otherwise not. Some states really can claim to be local control states, other states not so much. Yet, when you try to pin down which of these models seems to lead to growing achievement over time, it's just too far disconnected from the classroom. It doesn't mean that governance doesn't matter. The reason that it matters is that at the end of the day when you look at a classroom, when you look at a school, when you look at the people in those buildings and whether they can make decisions and use their judgement, whether they face the right incentives, whether they're being held accountable for results - all of that comes down to governance. We have a system that is hugely fragmented where there are tons of cooks in the kitchen and where, in many cases, those people on the ground cannot use their judgement and make decisions because of all those other people who are trying to make decisions for them.

Robert:                   Okay, so let me put you on the spot. We can't say which model works best, but maybe Mike Petrilli can say which model he likes best.

Mike:                       Which I like best? I have to say, maybe it's my Italian roots, Robert, but I like the more autocratic approaches here in general. Look, I worry about fragmentation a lot. Now, I draw distinction between that in say charter schools and schools of choice where you create opportunities for autonomy and innovation and a smaller scale to get things done. When it comes to setting the rules of the game and regulation and what different people have to do in the system, I do worry about having too many cooks in the kitchen, so I do tend to be more supportive of things that have fewer cooks in the kitchen. I worry about the influence of some adult interest groups like the unions and so I would tend to like governance models that find smart ways to keep them from having more influence than they should to make sure that the needs of kids are a the top of the list. Again, I'm not giving a clear answer, am I?

Robert:                   This is the, "let a thousand flowers bloom".

Mike:                       I'll say this. Keep Hamilton on the currency. Hint, hint, there's my answer. Okay. Topic number three. By the way, I'm totally in favor of having a woman on the currency. I think this is a great idea, just not the ten. On the twenty, get rid of Jackson. Nobody likes Jackson.

Robert:                   You know, you've got a good point there.

Mike:                       There's not fight, but Hamilton? Don't go after Hamilton. Jackson doesn't have a Broadway show named after him.

Robert:                   No, he does not. By the way, go see Hamilton. It's fabulous.

Mike:                       Yeah, and Harriet Tubman would be my vote. However, it has to be pointed out that that was not her actual given name and so, you know, do you notice that?

Robert:                   I did not know that.

Mike:                       Oh no. That was not her born name. That was her name that she took on the Underground Railroad, which I learned by reading a book to my son about the Underground Railroad. Her name was Araminta I believe, and I forget her last name, but Araminta. Minty she went as.

Robert:                   Very good.

Mike:                       But we digress. Topic number three, Clara.

Robert:                   That's what we do here at the Gadfly show.

Clara:                      Education Trust is out with a report on Common Core, reporting that most assignments teachers are giving their students are not well aligned to the more rigorous expectations of the standards. Is it time to panic about implementation?

Mike:                       Panic, Robert, panic!

Robert:                   There was a great moment on The Simpsons. I can't remember the character. "Doctor, is it time to panic?" "Yes, it's time to panic." No it's not time to panic, but look, this is the lens which I view all of this. I'm always more focused on what goes on in the classroom than structures and heavens forfend governance, Mike. I've been saying all along that the political battles over Common Core one thing, but it's going to be won and lost in the classroom. Regardless of anything in this report, kudos to the Education Trust for actually trying to break through the black box and find out what are teachers teaching, what are kids learning. Any time a research report attempts to do that I'm all for it.

                                    That said, I think this is a good report, but I think you have to look at the limitations. It's from memory, something like six schools in two cities, and urban cities. It's the Ed Trust, no surprise there. I'm not sure that it's a good indication of what's going on in K12 at large, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was. The top line finding is that the vast majority of assignments that teachers are assigning are simply not aligned with Common Core. Now, this could get complicated because they looked at a lot of science assignments, a lot of history assignments for example, not necessarily a lot of ELA assignments.

                                    I do worry that there's a little bit of to a hammer everything is a nail-ness about this. In other words, they're looking at everything as if it's an ELA assignment and that may not be fair. One of the things I point out in this weeks education Gadfly is, look, Common Core calls for building background knowledge which is why I love Common Core across the curricula. If the assignments that they're criticizing are doing that then that's a good thing, so you need some context to understanding whether these assignments are good, bad, or indifferent. Again, kudos to the Education Trust for at least doing the hard work of actually looking at implementation because, yeah, I'm concerned about this. I've been concerned about this all along.

Mike:                       If you could get a representative sample of assignments I think that would be a really important data point. It seems more doable than trying to get in there and have a bazillion researchers standing in the back of classrooms and watch what's going on, which of course you'd like to do too but it's just incredibly expensive. We're going to have NAEP results coming out soon, then we'll have it again in 2017. People are going to start asking if you see states making gains or losses is it because of Common Core or not. Boy, wouldn't it be great to have a sample of assignments by state and just try to see is there a relationship there, is that partly what's going on?

Robert:                   You're right. It would be enormously expensive to do this work rigorously and diligently but, boy, somebody should do this. It never ceases to amaze me how little we know about what kids actually do in school all day. It's such a blind spot.

Mike:                       All right, that is all the time we've got this week for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it is time for everybody's favorite, Amber's Research Minute.

Mike:                       Welcome back to the show, Amber.

Amber:                   Thank you, Mike.

Mike:                       Amber, what have you got for us?

Amber:                   All right. We've got a new study out in the Journal of School Choice that explores whether charter schools open in high demand areas of New York City. The latter is viewed along a few dimensions, so it's kind of limited, but this is how they think about it. Whether charters open in high density areas with lots of children, whether they locate in areas with low academic performance, and whether they locate in areas where parental satisfaction is low. The sample includes fifty-six new elementary charter schools that open between 2009 and 2013 as well as 571 traditional elementary schools.

                                    Data sources include a parent satisfaction survey that they I guess give every year out of the New York City department of ed, as well as the school average for math proficiency - that's what they use - and census data on poverty and population, along with this really nifty GIS software. They map parental dissatisfaction with their current school relative to the charter openings in these areas, and then they overlay on top the percent of the population living in poverty. You see all these nifty maps of how they overlay all these different data points.

                                    Results. They find pockets of parental dissatisfaction in southwest Brooklyn, the Bronx, and scattered throughout Queens. Yet, charter-

Robert:                   Which only has one charter school, as I recall.

Amber:                   Really?

Robert:                   I think so.

Amber:                   Yet, charter schools are not opening in these areas when they plotted it out. They tended to open in clusters in the middle of Brooklyn and along a stretch in western Manhattan where parental satisfaction varied, but was in general, moderate to high. Next, they found a modest but imperfect relationship between community poverty and where charters opened. Specifically, a majority of new charters opened in communities with at least 20% of those residents in poverty, but then again, twenty-one new charters opened in areas with less than 20% poverty. Then, they have these really poor areas that had no charters, so they didn't have a real clear pattern there, but the strongest correlation just out of these three things, was between weak math proficiency and charter openings so only seven of the fifty-six new charters that opened during those years located in areas not close to low performing traditional schools. They were opening in areas that had the weak math proficiency.

                                    Finally, they found that many charters opened in somewhat sparsely populated areas, and in many dense areas there were no charters. Analysts concluded that charters appear to open in response to low academic proficiency foremost, and possibly to a combination of low proficiency and concentrated poverty, but not in response to low parental satisfaction. Of course, there's a small discussion at the end that could have been twenty pages long that this is actually pretty complex why charters locate where they do in New York City. It's not just about these things that they happen to be able to measure. Let's talk about there politics, which I'm sure we could talk about surrounding which schools get authorized. We could talk about the cost of real estate in the city and being able to find and afford a building. We could talk about the influence of the charter cap there, although it seems to be fairly generous. We could talk about the overall quality of the charter schools, just being a few. That said, I thought it was interesting because at least we know from this study that it's not apparently in response to parental dissatisfaction.

Mike:                       Hold on, though. I feel like the causal line is going the wrong way here. Isn't it possible that those neighborhoods where the charters are have high parental satisfaction because of the charter schools?

Amber:                   The way that they looked at it, right, was they went ahead, the baseline was before they'd opened.

Mike:                       Okay.

Amber:                   Yeah.

Mike:                       They had these surveys from way before that.

Robert:                   There's a clustering tendency, as well. I still teach one day a week at those charters and in Harlem where I teach, I think it's saturated now. If you want a seat in a charter in Harlem you can get one. Same thing with the South Bronx, same thing with Brooklyn, but then you have to the studies point, I don't think there's a single charter school in Staten Island. Does that mean that there's no need, no dissatisfaction? Highly unlikely. I think in the entire borough of Queens which if I'm not mistaken is the second, maybe third most populace borough in New York City, one charter school. They are definitely clustered, but that's a clever study.

Mike:                       It's interesting. Of course, the facilities piece is huge. Of course they're not in dense areas. Those places are frickin' expensive in New York City. Thankfully, in New York, I assume that still lots of the city, kids can get to schools even outside their neighborhoods because there's a robust public transportation system. It's not crazy to try to locate your school not necessarily right where the kids live, but maybe someplace centrally located where you can draw from lots of different neighborhoods. Good stuff. Anytime people can use a map we're in favor of that.

Amber:                   The GIS stuff is really cool, right? It's kind of limited because they were only able to look at a handful of things, but still. You'd think they'd look at the parental satisfaction. You'd think maybe that might be one data point that you'd look at.

Mike:                       It's interesting. Eventually, we need to do a map study here.

Amber:                   I do. I think we could I'm not the one to do it but, hey, we're hiring for a new graphic person with some info-graphic experience.

Mike:                       I thought a map of where DC's education policy wonks live could be kind of interesting.

Robert:                   For what reason? So we could do one of those Hollywood style bus tours?

Mike:                       Yes!

Robert:                   Here is Michael Petrilli's home.

Mike:                       Let's go visit Randi Winegarden's apartment! Yes! Why not?

Robert:                   Let me know how that works out for you.

Mike:                       Hey, you guys have nothing to lose. Neither one of you lives here.

Amber:                   Nope. Not taking Amtrak out to my house.

Mike:                       All right. That is all the time we've got for this week. Until next week-

Robert:                   I'm Robert Pondiscio.

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