actual competitive behavior in charter schools

I have argued, for some time, that there’s a basic misunderstanding about why some schools and school districts are considered good. Many argue that, thanks to the vagaries of local districting and funding of public education through property taxes, the hardest to educate kids are systematically excluded from the best schools. They aren’t wrong to say so. However, they miss a key detail: in large measure, those schools are perceived to be the best precisely because they systematically exclude the hardest to educate kids. If the three most powerfully correlative demographic factors for educational success are parental income, race, and parental education, then our system of educational districting is a powerful tool for separating those demographically predisposed for success from those predisposed for failure. I am firmly in support of efforts to integrate these separate groups, for a variety of reasons. But those who suggest that doing so would result in the worst-performing students suddenly and significantly improving are almost certainly mistaking cause for effect.

I would argue that the charter school movement has, in an oblique way, provided a great deal of evidence for my position. You can find that evidence in this thorough, necessary piece of reporting from Reuters. You should really read the whole thing. It details, at great length, the extraordinary measures that administrators in charter schools take to exclude the students that are difficult to educate, thereby gaming the system to appear effective in relation to the public schools that have no similar screening process. The methods they utilize to do so are, at times, jaw-dropping; their effect, to keep out children who are poor, from racial and ethnic minorities, from broken families or bad parents, and the like. All in all, it’s behavior reminiscent of the private high school in my hometown that bragged about the test scores its students received, neglecting to mention that they had to get good scores on a standardized tests to get in. All from advocates of “parental choice,” “expanding access,” or whatever other self-aggrandizing language you can think of.

In the great efforts they are expending to exclude the students that are the most difficult to educate, charter schools are lending more credence to my argument about the arrow of causation in our perception of school quality than I could ever generate.

The big question is why anyone would be  surprised. Recently I mentioned Campbell’s Law, and pointed out that we don’t have to excuse efforts to cheat standardized assessment measures, but we do  have to expect them, if we’re being rational students of human behavior. It’s a similar story here: for decades, ed reformers have insisted that the key to improving American education is to open it up to competition. “Competition,” like “innovation” or “disruption,” is one of those educational bywords that seems to have no particular character outside of whatever policy the person using it wants to advocate. But to the extent that it actually refers to real-world competitive behavior, let’s be clear: these administrators, as hypocritical and destructive as they are, are living up to that mantra. Cheating, or rule-bending, or playing it fast and loose, or following the letter but not the spirit, or juking the stats, or whatever– all are a part of what actual competitive behavior entails. Outside of the heady confines of Davos, principals working hard to keep out poor, needy kids from their charter schools while they pleat on about no child being left behind is a great example of how people actually compete. Be careful what you wish for.


  1. Freddie, let me help….

    Schools “competing” doesn’t mean they all compete to do the same thing.

    The idea is some schools will actually compete to handle the worst, violent, maladjusted kids.

    Some schools will compete for the kids who should be in trades.

    Some will only go after gifted.

    This is what we mean when we say Whole Foods COMPETES with other grocery stores.

    In a small market that could mean only one of each school. But we’d still LIKE it to be as easy as possible for another company (school) to spin up and try and win over the parents of trade school kids, etc.

    In a large market, there will be more than one.

    BUT NOBODY when we say competition means lets randomly assign kids from all walks of life and capabilities and see what schools do better.

    We’d STILL expect competition in that weird terrible system to do better, but it’s certainly not what we’re talking about when we talk competition.

    Please update your priors.

      1. Again, who cares about “charters”

        We WANT silos, we want specialization, we want BAD kids thrown out, pushed to a school where only bad kids live.

        Look if the public school system operated without the teacher’s union, charters would be less effective at proving we should have charters.

        But you need to come to terms with some things:

        1. REALLY good teachers don’t like the Seniority system. And we should celebrate them wanting to COMPETE and make MORe than losers who just hang on the longest.

        Freddie isn’t an idiot, he knows he’s smarter than the other teachers at Perdue, when push comes to shove, IF Freddie knows his pay will go up, in a system where the top 20% of teachers earn more than they currently do, he’s not going to cry about it. Freddie is NOT SURE, he has FEARS, that the market won’t work for him, that if he cheers for an open battle field where gladiator teachers kill one another, that even tho he is in the top of th power law, his OWN sitch won’t be better.

        And that’s wrong. My job, the entrepreneurs job is to CONVINCE Freddie he can trust the top 20%, his clan, will do BETTER if they stop protecting the bottom 80%.

        Thats on us.

        2. REALLY good teachers are OK with standardized tests IF and ONLY IF they can throw out the kids who don’t want to learn.

        There are bad kids, there are bad parents, and once you let go of the the idea of the state becoming the parent, and that’s a dumb idea, you recognize the BEST STRATEGY FOR BAD KIDS is to group them up and deal with them en mass, away from everyone else.

        1. Well, look– as you often point out, we have very different assumptions about what education is and what it’s for. But set that aside for a moment: the ed reform movement has said again and again that the goal is “no child left behind.” Not only in reference to that horrible policy, but as a fundamental ethos. In Waiting for Superman, the narrator yells, “don’t tell me these kids can’t learn!” If the notion now is that we’re just going to give up on some kids, then that’s got to penetrate the ed reform philosophy and its portrayal in the media.

          We both agree that the best way to help the worst off is through a redistributive scheme like a UBI, although we disagree on the particulars.

          1. Freddie, I’m not giving up on bad kids, or trade school kids, or visual learners, or Aspies, or any kid.

            BUT, why in the hell would we just grab an random assortment of kids, stick them in a building and then argue with the teachers union about whether they are doing a good enough job?

            Before we even talk to a teachers union or even ask about what teachers think, we’d make specialization choices. Different schools, focusing on different things.

            With that done, we’d ask well who goes where? And that would need to atomized to parents and schools. Schools have admissions policies and focuses, and parents have the best instincts about their kids.

            Personally, I’d basically never have teacher unions, at least not with Seniority pay, and certainly not without the ability to cull the herd far more aggressively than we do today.

            BUT, there’s good stuff here for 80% of the teachers in the unions to be excited about:

            Since random assortments of kids aren’t forced on them, they aren’t stuck with bad kids.

            Because there is smart sorting, the teachers themselves can teach to the type best for them to teach. This gives the lower quality teachers some place to go, teaching Math to the trade school kids, doesn’t require as much brain power, it likely

            Under such a system, it’s far easier to backpack kids (each kid in state gets same amount of money), so I’d basically privatize all schools with public funding.

            This gets us the competition we’re after, the kind Charters really deliver, and while its not the same kind of Union, as long as they lose the bottom 20% of teachers, and forget Seniority pay, there could be collective bargaining.

            The bigger issue is that when we backpack kids, we KNOW X kids x Y $ = total spending.

            We have capital costs, busing, admin, etc but ULTIMATELY, teachers who can handle larger groups of kids effectively ought to be making more money, no? That’s a teacher rating I could really get behind.

            This is why when you look at the flipped classroom, the technology lever that basically has teachers unsticking stuck kids rather than teaching the whole class, does appear to be able to give us a FAR BETTER WAY to measure teacher performance.

            Kids are learning at their own computer guided pace (so their abilities are easier to track), and teachers are now “unstickers” so we judge them on in super clear moments:

            Freddie is stuck on X concept. How long does it take for her get Freddie to understand this?

            Nt only that but we know which teachers have been good at unsticking that thing, and we know WHAT THEY SAID to unstick a given type of learner.

            Anyway, these things are coming, they are happening, so it’s not about Status Quo or old way, it’s about brand new stuff – brand new stuff is relentless.

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