The Super Bowl edition

Student achievement in single-parent homes, Denver’s rising public school enrollment, top-down accountability problems, and private schools of choice.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith, "Views from Private Schools: Attitudes about School Choice Programs in Three States," American Enterprise Institute (January 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 in welcoming my co-host. The Bill Belichick of education reform, Michelle Learner.

Michelle:         Aren't they cheaters?

Mike:               I wasn't going to bring that part up. You knew! You kept saying you don't know anything about sports, and you knew Bill Belichick, the coach of the Patriots. On one hand, he is charged with cheating. There's this question that the Patriots may have been deflating footballs as a way to somehow have an advantage. But there's also some people who see him as a master tactician. Michelle, this is the question. When people look up at the big score that you put up on the board for Fordham. All the press hits. The huge Twitter followers of the education reform -

Michelle:         Those are earned through hard work, not by deflating clout scores or something of our opponents.

Mike:               This is the question. Are you sure you're doing it the honest way and you're not cheating?

Michelle:         I don't cheat. I lived in Boston for a few years, and let me tell you, their sports fans are crazy. They're crazy.

Mike:               Because people do cheat on Twitter, you know?

Michelle:         Do you do that?

Mike:               There were some -

Michelle:         Are you suggesting that Andy Smarick or Robert Pondiscio?

Mike:               There's some site you can go to and figure out how many of somebody's Twitter followers are real people versus robots, right?

Michelle:         Yes, but -

Mike:               Wasn't there a time when people were buying lists of people to get their numbers up?

Michelle:         We don't do that.

Mike:               I know we don't, but I think there are groups out there that do.

Michelle:         Are you saying there are ed reform groups out there, because you shouldn't make an accusation unless you're willing -

Mike:               There have been accusations that some ed reform groups, when they first got their Twitter handles, bought lists.

Michelle:         Are you ready to name names?

Mike:               I'm saying people should go check it out on their own.

Michelle:         On that note.

Mike:               I just remembered that there were accusations. I haven't checked it out in a while, but you just see. You can see how many people are real, how many of those followers are real people.

Michelle:         Can we go to the next segment?

Mike:               We can. We can. Okay, Michelle. Yes, it is time to play Pardon the Gadfly. Communications assistant, Ellen, get us started.

Ellen:               Education Next recently reported that the U.S. has alarmingly high rates of children living in single parent homes, kids whose achievement lags behind those living with two parents. Why is this happening, and what can be done?

Mike:               So here's the thing to know, Michelle. In the U.S., about a quarter of all kids live with a single parent. A lot of people will say, "Oh well, isn't that the same in Europe. A lot of people in Europe don't get married anymore." The thing is those couples in Europe that don't get married, they still tend to stay together. The rates of single parenthood are much lower, usually more in the neighborhood of 10% or 15%.

                        This has an impact. I mean, this is of course, co-related with poverty and a lot of other things, but these kids tend to do worse. What do you make of it?

Michelle:         Well, I think the evidence has been pretty strong for a very long time that being raised by two parents is a good outcome no matter what. This study, I mean, it's not causal. When you read it, it goes through, while they control it for other things. Really the number of books in a child home seem to be a stronger indication of the gap than how many parents are in the house.

                        What I found interesting was how far Finland, or how close Finland was to the U.S. When Finland is always held up as the example. They actually have a fairly large number of households with one parent.

Mike:               Yeah. No, that's interesting. I mean, look, this is one of these things that's so hard to figure out. I mean, what do we do as a country to try to promote marriage and healthier marriages and keep couples together or help them get together in the first place.

                        I mean a huge amount of this is simply that a lot more women are having babies without getting married. It is now a majority of women in their 20's are having children out of wedlock. Why that's happening, tons of books written about this.

                        I'm pretty convinced that you look at the data and you say, "These tend to be women who have relatively poor education and not great job prospects." They don't have the same incentives to wait until marriage as say somebody who is college-educated, wants to live the fun life of the 20's. Get done with their education before having a family.

Michelle:         There's also the male component of this which is a lot of the men that are options for a partner aren't necessarily able to provide either.

Mike:               That's right. That's right. The marriage-able problem. That a lot of these men are not working or they're not making a whole lot of money like they used to.

                        I've got an article coming out in Education Next shortly. Maybe we'll talk about that when it hits in a week or two. Talking about what schools might do about all of this stuff.

                        Just to say that when people talk about poverty as being one of the reasons that America's schools don't do as well. We have to talk about what does that literally mean? Is it that kids don't have enough money, because in America, actually, most poor families - I mean, again, they're poor, so they don't have a lot of money, but compared to countries overseas, it's not that they have necessarily less money than the poor families overseas do. What we do see is that those poor kids are more likely to be in these single parent homes. That is a serious hardship.

Michelle:         Agreed.

Mike:               Okay, topic number two.

Ellen:               In Denver, poverty is down, along with the under-eighteen population. But public school enrollment is up, meaning more families are choosing the Denver school district. Thoughts?

Mike:               Why is this happening, Michelle?

Michelle:         Well, I'll say, you know, I think Denver might be the next D.C. For a long time, perhaps, people were not wanting to send their kids to the public schools, but now, with all this choice, public school choice, parents are saying, "Hey, I actually get a say in which school is right for my kid, and which school I can send my kid to." There's a few other things like the recession for a while probably led to the fact that parents who would have sent their kids to private school maybe couldn't have afforded.

                        I think it's a positive thing. I think it's public school choice. I think it's the fact that Denver has turned around its reputation. I think its good news.

Mike:               Yeah, look, no, this is good news, because for many years, those of us in education reform have been hoping that this would happen. That if we could improve public schools in cities, including through school choice, that that would keep the middle class, bring back the middle class, and that's just helpful for a city for all kinds of reasons.

                        For one thing, it makes it easier to promote integrated public schools. It also, frankly, if there's middle class people, upper middle class people stay, those are tax dollars that can be used in the city instead of going to the suburbs.

                        In Denver, I suspect that a huge proportion of what's going on is because of one network of charter schools. That Denver School of Science and Technology now has something like five or six different high school campuses. I think they may do middle schools too.

                        These are schools that are purposely diverse. They make sure that it's about half and half between economically disadvantaged kids and middle class kids. Doing an amazing job doing a stem program.

                        There's just a ton of parents that are like, "Wow, this is better than what I'd get in private schools." But if you want to attend those schools, you got to live in Denver.

Michelle:         Now Chalbeat Colorado did a great story on this very issue. What they talk about is that this is a trend throughout Colorado, and that there could be a gentrification thing going on, obviously. There's also, they talk about a contraception program that was, I guess is law in Colorado, and that now there are fewer people having babies. Four, five, six years down the road, this is what we're seeing.

Mike:               Wow, that's fascinating. You know, this links to what we were talking about before.

Michelle:         Exactly.

Mike:               This is encouraging young women to wait to have a baby until they're in a place where they can better take care of those babies. What they've done in Denver is make these long-acting reversible contraceptives or larks more widely available. Including that when women come in, they have their first baby to offer them these contraceptives, which has sharply reduced them having a second, or third, or fourth baby often by different men. Again, all of these very good in terms of poverty reduction, in terms of helping young people have a better shot growing up.

Michelle:         You know what I learned? This is a little off topic, but people call Denver ‘Manver’. There's so many available men.

Mike:               Interesting. I'm not surprised. I did remember seeing that on the ...

Michelle:         I've never heard of that.

Mike:               So what do they call Washington, then, because there's so many available women?

Michelle:         I don't know. I'll let you come up with that.

Mike:               Washington women? I've got to work on that. All right, topic number three.

Ellen:               Mike, this week you're calling for a reduction in top down accountability at both state and federal levels, arguing that choice is a more effective way of closing failing schools. Will governments listen?

Mike:               Hey, that reminds me. Happy National School Choice Week, everybody! Michelle has the yellow scarf on as we speak. She's got it around her head like a turban.

Michelle:         That's actually not true, but I was wearing yellow yesterday, and we have a few scarves, you know -

Mike:               But that was not yellow. That was mustard.

Michelle:         Which falls into what color category?

Mike:               I don't know. I don't know about that. It has a very different color, but yes, I would support those scarves, but let's face it. They are scratchy, people. They are scratchy, you know?

Michelle:         That fabric actually makes me cringe. It's like this felt fake thing.

Mike:               Yes, it's tough. It's tough. This is the context of the elementary and secondary education act or No Child Left Behind, up for re-authorization. We have gone through the big debate over annual testing. It looks like, in my view, that in the end, that's going to stay in the bill. That Lamar Alexander has gotten comfortable with the notion of keeping annual testing, partly because of Marty West. Way to go, Marty, friend of Fordham, Harvard professor, who spent a year working for Lamar, and then was the witness at the hearing last week.

Michelle:         Talk about good impact.

Mike:               Big impact. Love it! He should shoot right to the top of Rick Hess' scholar rankings on influence. Now the debate is, well, what about accountability, in terms of both the school ratings, how do you determine the A to F schools, that kind of stuff, and what do you do if anything about schools that are failing.

                        What I try to argue in this piece is that it is okay for us to turn the page at the federal level on accountability. Accountability should be a rule for the states, but even at the state level, let's face it. The top down stuff doesn't seem to be having much of an impact on the lowest performing schools with a few exceptions.

                        There are a few studies and a few examples of places that have had some ability, but it's usually if they do things like fire half the staff, close the schoos, these really draconian things. Most states aren't willing to do it. But you know what is working to get rid of the worst public schools out there?

Michelle:         School choice.

Mike:               School choice. Right? I mean in city after city you see more and more kids going to charter schools, and when that happens, eventually, these school districts have to shut down some of their own schools, because they're under enrolled and those tend to be the worst schools.

Michelle:         So putting the school choice component aside on which we both agree, I'm going to push back a little. You talk about the difference between accountability and transparency in your blog post. My push back is, what's the difference between a school that's not performing, and a school that we know isn't performing because it's now transparent? Doesn't there have to be -

Mike:               Boy, I feel like I saw Andy Smarick say that on Twitter earlier today.

Michelle:         [inaudible 00:11:27] I don't know what's on Twitter.

Mike:               All right.

Michelle:         But what is the difference? I mean, fine, I will give you that the federal role hasn't done a good job in doing the right kind of accountability. Maybe we don't know what the right accountability is. Maybe we are fatigued from waiver overreach over the last eight years or six years. Are you really ready just to give up?

Mike:               So what I would say is that transparency is important so that, first and foremost, parents understand how their schools are performing. Especially now, in most cities, we do have a real school choice environment. Parents get to choose. We want to give them good information.

                        There are starting to be some evidence that if you give parents that information in a pretty easy to understand format, make it say if there's an application process where they go on to a uniform application, and the scores are right there, that they will gravitate towards the higher ranked scores.

                        It's not all that matters. They care about proximity. They care about extracurriculars, which is quite reasonable. It will nudge them towards these higher performing schools. The transparency is important, the testing, and boiling it down to some kind of a grade or rating for the school. All important.

                        In terms of doing something about the worst schools, again, I'm happy to have states continue to try to experiment there. I really don't think we know what to do. Recovery school districts look promising. It worked in New Orleans, but it was a disaster in Michigan.

                        A handful of studies have shown that some of these state intervention teams, I think in North Carolina and California have had some impact, but only if they push for the toughest reforms, and only in a few places. At the federal level, let's be careful not to mandate a particular approach when we really don't know what works. This is not just a political problem. We just need political courage to shut down those failing schools. We don't know what the right option is.

                        Again, the good news is, there is this other mechanism out there that's actually doing it. That mechanism is school choice. I say, hey, let's keep cranking up the charter school engine. Let's focus on the high quality charters. That's important. You got to get those details right. Those worst schools will be taken care of almost automatically if we can get that engine cranking up right.

Michelle:         But it has to be the right engine, right? Obviously, the 40 something different charter school laws. We're in Ohio, where, obviously, things haven't been so great. In other states, there are. It's not just, "Oh, school choice." It's easy.

Mike:               It's not easy, but I think it has more potential to solve this particular problem of what to do with he worst failing public schools than some kind of top down approach does.

Michelle:         All right, I'm not -

Mike:               Oh, but this is good. We disagree. I like it. I like it.

Michelle:         I just feel like it's a pendulum switch. Kind of like, you know, the whole thing is testing has been great. Now, it's awful. Let's get rid of it. Okay, let's keep it. Maybe it's somewhere in the middle. I mean, I think we swing too much.

Mike:               Right. Just testing, that's a whole another issue for another day.

Michelle:         Next week.

Mike:               Next week. Okay, thank you, Ellen. All the time we've got for this week on Pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute! Amber, welcome back to the show.

Amber:            Thank you, Mike.

Mike:               You're going to be watching the big game on Sunday?

Amber:            Of course.

Mike:               And are you rooting for that team that likes to deflate their footballs?

Amber:            No. I got to go with Seattle on this one.

Mike:               Really?

Amber:            Yeah, I am. I don't know. I just think Wilson's just a nice guy.

Mike:               He is.

Michelle:         Seattle is also nicer than people in Boston. There, I'll say it.

Mike:               Oh, well that's true. It's interesting. I mean Seattle's football team is not known to be nice, per se.

Amber:            Yeah, that one guy. I forget the one guy who's such a show man. He drives me nuts. The one with the dreads, but, eh, whatever.

Mike:               Right. I'm not going to say his name, because earlier this year, I said his name and I got it wrong. Remember that?

Michelle:         I couldn't correct you. I don't even know who you're talking about.

Mike:               And Tom Brady at that time's a bit of a bad boy, I guess.

Amber:            He's eye candy.

Mike:               I wasn't going to say it.

Amber:            Let's not say that he's not, but you know, eye candy only goes so far with me. I like nice guys. I mean, I just - It's silly, but I do. Do men do this? You like the team based on the quarterback or not? Or you guys aren't that much that way, I guess.

Michelle:         I thought you liked football teams based on the color of their uniforms?

Mike:               That's definitely where my boys are, yes. Oh, no, no. Okay, what you got for us, Amber?

Amber:            All right, we've got views from private schools which is the new EAI study that examines how private schools in Louisiana, Florida, and Indiana perceive school choice programs. They administered an online survey to principals in private schools and the states with a response rate, incidentally, of 29%.

                        The study very closely mirrors our own report in 2013 called school choice regulations red tape or red herring. Their finding mimicked ours in many ways. That the highest rated response for participating in those programs was that they wanted to expand their mission, thus serving disadvantaged kids. These are nice people wanting to do the right thing, which is what we found too.

                        Their other key finding is that private school leaders are very concerned about regulation, and it was their top factor influencing the decision of non-participating schools in all three states. Yet, we don't know what that really means, because the question, the way it's worded, doesn't get into the nature of the regulations. It's kind of vague. That's a problem.

                        The authors point out that their findings differ from ours, relative to the requirement that requiring voucher schools to take the state test is a major deterrent to participation. Yet, their own study is not definitive on that.

                        I started digging a little bit. In fact, 25% of school leaders in Florida in their study say that concerns about administering the state accountability test is a major concern. It's just 25%. 14% say the same in Indiana, and 29% in Louisiana.

                        What's kind of confusing is that they lump in whether it's a major concern with whether it's a minor concern. They're right beside each other. The percentages looking concerned are bigger than they would or otherwise. They don't have the whole Likert scale, only to like get two in the weeds, but you don't really see if minor and major are two ends of the same Likert scale or whether they're right beside each other.

                        Anyway, to my mind, a major concern or minor concern, does minor mean like not that important at all, or, you know what I'm saying. When you just look at the major concern, their numbers are actually lower than what's reported in the press release is what I'm saying. Our own report found that a quarter of respondents listed the requirement to participate in state testing as very or extremely important. We had a quarter that said that.

                        Anyway, it's a lot of similarities there. We found, and Mike knows this already, that really, the leaders cared most about their admissions process and their religious identity that kind of rose to the top of the heap for us. So then we got in this little bit of email discussion, why might the findings be different.

                        I think one of the things that Pat Wolf and Mike and I agreed was our study was relative to urban areas. You got to think that maybe they're used to sort of having to deal with some of these regulations, because they're accepting these kids at a higher rate than private schools in some of these suburban areas. That's one difference.

                        We can talk a little bit about their findings with Louisiana. One of which was that those leaders are concerned about the voucher, scholarship amounts, rather, because in that state, they have to take the amount. Period. They can't supplement it.

                        Anyway, bottom line, we need to be careful. I think all of us would agree. We need to be careful about how we structure these private school programs, and we don't want to undercut the pupil amounts, and we don't want to bog them down with regulations.

Mike:               Yeah.

Michelle:         I think our study paperwork, and the amount of paperwork, was a concern.

Amber:            That was one of them.

Mike:               Yup. No, absolutely. The good news is that they have largely confirmed our findings. This doesn't happen enough in education where you do similar studies due to a couple of different times and make sure that the finding is robust. It seems robust, right?

                        It's to say that there are some things these private school leaders worry about and other things they don't. It does matter, because let's face it. The private schools get to decide whether to participate or not. If you believe in vouchers or tax credit programs, you think that's good for kids, it doesn't work if none of the private schools agree to participate.

                        You can't overdue it with the regulations. On the other hand, you know, you can also say that look, if they're going to take public money, here's the deal. There should be some public accountability. If they're not willing to take that deal, then so be it.

                        We at Fordham had initially said in some of our policy statements, we thought that they should have to take the state test, including the common core test. We backed off that position after some push back, and said, "All right, fine." Look, a reasonable compromise is for these schools to take a nationally normed test. As long as again, the results are transparent to the public. That is a reasonable compromise. Not essentially my ideal, but it still works.

Amber:            It's my ideal.

Mike:               It is your ideal, and for good reason, right? It is Amber's idea.

Amber:            Yeah.

Mike:               Right, because you don't want to control curriculum in these schools.

Amber:            That's right.

Mike:               Fine. Again, folks, we have an agreement, right? Let's keep regulations low. Let's allow them to use these other tests. Let's make the results transparent. Let's get on with it, people. Let's put those yellow scarves on and celebrate National School Choice Week. Kumbaya, Amber!

Amber:            Yes, kumbaya. Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I think, you know, initially, when I saw the report, I was like, okay, this is like almost identically what we did -

Mike:               And what we found.

Amber:            And what we found, and it's a different sample. It seemed like there were some effort to kind of make some hay out of the differences, but when you dig in there, they're not that compelling, the differences between the two.

                        Yeah, I think what everybody learned doing these things is how you word the survey question is critical to how people respond. Obviously, market researchers know this. They bias these questions all the time. It's an art as much of a science in terms of getting the questions right.

                        You can lead people to respond certain ways. It's important not to do that. When regulations popped up for them as their top thing, that could mean a million different things.

Mike:               Right. That could mean around admissions. That could mean around religion.

Amber:            Financial.

Mike:               Right. Exactly. All right, good. Well, thank you very much, Amber. Thank you, Michelle. That's all the time we've got for this week. Until next week.

Michelle:         I'm Michelle Learner.

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

Speaker 1:       The Education Gadfly Show is a production of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute located in Washington DC. For more information, visit us online at