School Incentive Matters in Education

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According to Providence Journal education writer Linda Borg, students at Blackstone Valley Prep charter schools perform so much better than children with the same demographic mix in public schools that it’s as if they were in school for an additional 109 days for math and 97 days for English.  For the Achievement First charter schools, the margin is 120 days for math and 57 days for English.

The first point to emphasize is that these results are adjusted so as to be comparing students to their actual peers.  That is, the idea that students in some areas of the state just can’t learn as well, given other factors in their lives, is generally false.  Of course, the study authors can’t correct for things like neglectful parents, who are probably less likely to seek charter school enrollment in the first place, but that argues more for making it easier for parents to be drawn into involvement, as by empowering them with decision authority of their children’s education.

Of particular interest (beyond my quick skim of the study) is the difference among charter schools.  Across the country charter school management organizations (CMOs) do significantly better than similar district schools, with about 17 extra days’ worth of learning in both math and reading.  CMOs are charter networks in which the organization oversees the operations of the schools is the same organization that holds (and is responsible for) the charter.  Both Blackstone and Achievement First are CMOs.

In contrast, vendor operated schools (VOSs), which are contractors hired by the charter holders to run the schools, don’t do as well as CMOs in reading and actually do slightly worse than district schools in math.

Particularly intriguing, though, is that hybrid charters, which combine both models, do far better, with students performing at a level of about 51 extra days in math and 46 extra days in reading.  Of course, we must note that fewer than 1% of charters fall in this category, so unique circumstances may skew the results.  One can well imagine, for example, that the Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) are very much mission driven, given circumstances in the city that they serve.

The key point, though, is that incentives, and the level of investment of management and teachers seems to be critical.  The farther from direct, immediate accountability charters get, the less benefit they provide.  This jibes with the assessment of those of us who support school reform that public schools core problem is that there are no organizational consequences for poor results.  One might speculate, too, that one reason Blackstone Valley and Achievement First do so well, even among charter schools, is that they are under constant threat of being undermined at the State House.



  • Mike678

    But didn’t Vecchio infer the high-performing BVP is a parasite as it’s taking $ from other, perhaps less successful, Cumberland schools?
    What world view / perspective could confuse competition with parasitism? Is Ford a ‘parasite’ if it produces a better product and takes market share from GM? That twisted perspective, IMHO, assumes that these $’s belong to the traditional/public-sector union dominated schools. Perhaps a more accurate perspective is that these are taxpayer dollars that should go to schools the taxpayers prefer?

    • Justin Katz

      The problem is that the formula for charter school funding it well above the marginal costs per student in the district schools, costs that charters often don’t have. So they’re getting more money from the district than they ought to be.

      • Mike678

        Agreed that the formula is problematic–but does that make the high performing Charters “parasites” or do we need to reexamine the formula? Which was done this year…

        We must also understand the per student costs for the district schools does not include the cost of the school buildings themselves–the multi-million dollar bonds towns and cities must pay. The charter schools pay for these buildings out of their operating budget.

        • Justin Katz

          True, but that gets to the argument that it’s forcing taxpayers to fund a parallel system.

          • Mike678

            I welcome that discussion. Let them compete–and if their can only be one…

  • Northern Exposure

    “…the study authors can’t correct for things like neglectful parents, who are probably less likely to seek charter school enrollment in the first place, but that argues more for making it easier for parents to be drawn into involvement, as by empowering them with decision authority of their children’s education.” Sorry, those left behind too often have severely undereducated parent(s) who are either not interested in the effort needed to participate in such a quality education, or are just plain hostile toward education. I’ve seen both of these types while on the school committee. And as they are left behind as the fortunate ones leave, they become a higher concentration of the remaining student population, making for a much more challenging environment for the teachers trying to educate them, despite the failed parents.

    • Justin Katz

      And such children are likely to need different things in a learning environment, so if there is a large number of them, it’s not exactly harmful to have the district public school become somewhat specialized to the population that it serves.

      • Northern Exposure

        Okay, I get that. Now, not to get into that argument, but how do you get results in a district that doesn’t have enough money despite a high state aid amount? You see, my city has the highest student/teacher ratio in the state while the teaching salaries, compared to all other public, non-charter schools pays the lowest. Yet, a population of students as I describe require more direct attention (in loco parentis), so should have fewer students per teacher, not the highest. That being said, assuming we still should pay the least because teachers are simply paid way too much (poor inducement), we would still need more teachers to serve such a population, yet can’t afford the several million it would take to meaningfully change that ratio.

        • Justin Katz

          It’s tough to say without direct, specific information, but I’d suggest that more flexibility in contracts and regulation is required. Perhaps alternative education models would help spread the workforce more effectively while providing students more of the services that they actually need. So, for example, allow flexible payment so that, say, an early childhood teacher needn’t make the same amount of money as a middle school teacher, thus shifting payroll to where the biggest problems are. Maybe some shuffling would allow for needed counsellors, who could be assigned throughout the school in-class to integrate counselling with education.

          I’m not offering this as a suggested program. I’m merely giving some examples off the top of my head about the ways in which flexibility and a more specialized student body would open up opportunities to address problems that seem impossible, right now, and which more money never solves.

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