"a 9 a.m. class .... He said he actually liked to schedule the class early because it let him leverage selection effects to ensure he was teaching motivated students"

Matt playing wide-eyed innocent here when all along he has been posting at 6a to select for motivated commenters.

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I love these columns. But I wish they did interrogate left of center intuitions about education a bit more. Here’s what I’m getting at: if there are some Ed interventions that really work on kids with disinterested, disorganized parents, with fewer resources, with low aptitude, etc, doesn’t it make perfect sense to cluster these kids all in the same ‘bad’ schools? maybe it’s hard to recruit ‘good’ teachers then but why are we even assuming a good teacher for the natural a students is a good teacher for the natural d students?

It may be the students with worst potential benefit most from something like direct instruction which the teachers that high SES parents love would never go for.

At the end of the day it seems what many left of center folks (either pro reform or not) are really indicating is that they think the engaged and motivated parents should have to spend their own energy on the children whose parents don’t care as much. And that this can only be accomplished by putting the low performing kids next to the high performing ones and degrading the experience of the high performing children until their neurotic parents can’t stand it anymore and solve the problem themselves. Only there’s no evidence the neurotic striver parents can even do this! And it seems more than a bit of an unfair bait and switch or maybe a confusion of the long running civil rights battles over segregation for the proximate issue.

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Here is the conservative view against these school choice bills. The state money that is being provided to parents is paid by people without kids. Why should my tax dollars go for someone to spend on their kids to give them an education that I might not approve of.

What’s ironic is the same people that are against welfare or cash benefits for poor people, support this cash benefits for a select number of parents.

Finally, as a parent of five kids, who has raised four other step-kids, and raised them all over the country because of the military… When people say they want a good schools, but they really mean is they want their kids to have good peers. And since it’s impossible to tell if any particular kid is “good “they use the kids parents as proxy.

When most parents meet one of their kids, friends, inevitably one of the first questions they ask is… What do your parents do?

I’m guilty of it. But I also know that the most liberal progressive parents also ask the same question. We all couch it in curiosity, but really, it’s a way for us to judge.

I like these education posts by Matt, but I really wish he would talk more about his decisions as a parent.

I believe he said that he sent his son to a public school, but I wonder what his thinking is. Will he continue to assess kids get older, or will he maybe consider moving to another area, or will it be a private school.

The perceived peer effects are much more significant as you get to middle school and high school.

Speaking of peer effects, my son that was notorious for making friends with the worst influences, no matter what school we went to. My son easily got A’s and B’s without even trying, but every single one of his friends was shady. Like shady, they broke into our house and stole stuff shady. It was like he was attracted to these bad kids for whatever reason. Because a little bit of delay in his adult hood stability. But happy and then he ended up living in Scotland for a couple years met a really posh girl and moved back to Boise recently, and started working for my company Siemens Energy as a generator Winder. And he is kicking ass… They love him. He’ll be making six figures by the age of 28.

Anyway, I’m in Perú guys and I gotta go to work. Have a great day.

(this entire post was dictated on my phone while I’m eating breakfast)

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It would be worth studying how much society gains from prioritizing high performing students versus how much it gains by catering to low performing students to close achievement gaps.

My intuition is that giving future professionals and leaders the best possible education is more socially useful than improving the spelling of future warehouse workers and cashiers. I know there’s research that smart working class kids really benefit from creaming. My wife did-- she was one of the poorest students in her school’s gifted program and wound up a successful CPA. She didn’t exactly grow up in poverty, her father had a good job at a tobacco factory and her mom was a bookkeeper, but she was noticeably poorer than her gifted program peers. Is there any good research on what, exactly, society gets by closing achievement gaps? Having warehouse workers and cashiers spell someone better is not nothing, but capturing the potential of the smart working class kids seems far more important.

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"The right likes the idea of regressive tax cuts, and the right is very into helping religious people."

This has been true during most of my lifetime and was even more true during the Bush NCLB years. Even so, the right tried for years to support reforms and had a few successes. The big question for me is ... What changed? Something has fundamentally altered the calculus and without understanding what that was it is hard to know what needs to be fixed.

Perhaps the education-sorting has biased the right away from education in general? or our highly-racialized discourse has seeped too much into school curriculums? or just Covid-related shutdowns and related partisanship? I don't know.

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I think the characterization of FdB's stance as anti-education is pretty unfair. He himself has gone at great lengths to explain his point, which is that there is no way that has been proven at scale to close relative achievement gaps (with the implication that due to the magic combination of nature and nurture there may be no way). What one takes away from that is a different matter.

Anyway I think the final paragraph gets to the right answer. Just like the point of trains should be to move passengers places the point of public schools should be to make excellent educational services available to everyone. When the politics around them become about anything and everything but that, normal people rightly understand that they are not for them, disengage, and those with the means and the inclination find alternatives.

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Apr 19·edited Apr 19

I think it's really worth talking in more detail about what it means to be "advantaged" in the DC public school system.

If your kid manages to be at grade level by middle school, and you're not zoned for one of two or three middle schools which are extraordinarily expensive to buy into, and you don't lottery into one of literally two charter schools, then what your advantages get you is a neighborhood public school where your kid could easily be multiple years ahead of the median student.

"There are no schools available which will provide appropriate academic options for your kid" is actually a really bad situation. And the only reason it's not worse -- that a couple of middle schools are allowed to offer the tracking they do -- is that it's essentially been grandfathered in. Efforts have been made to kill tracking and test-in options in DCPS, in some cases successfully (no high school in DC now requires being on grade-level to get in, including the selection admissions ones!), and in other cases less so (AP for All at JR).

It's bad. DC is totally uninterested in guaranteeing anything close to an appropriate education for kids who are on grade level or advanced. Your advantage really isn't helping you a whole lot, unless it also comes with vast amounts of money to buy into one a of a couple of schools. Mainly what your advantage lets you to is educate your kids outside of the public school system (via supplementing) or move.

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One thing that’s struck me as my teaching career spanned this whole time and was all in charters was how administrators, principals and coaches, totally never saw anything like the criticism teachers took in the 10 years I’ve been in the classroom.

People were so mad at teachers that we got magazine covers about needing to fire bad teachers. The people who bought shitty reading curriculum that we didn’t want, who came up with no consequence policies none of them had any backlash.

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Here’s the basic problem with relying on the engagement of higher resource parents to improve education for lower SES kids: you want the middle class to bring resources, but you pitch an absolute fit when they bring culture or policy. See for example “Nice White Parents.”

If all you want is more money for low SES programs, there’s no need to get bogged down in messing with the actual classroom operations for middle class kids. Just tweak taxes. But if you want to tap into the tacit, grassroots capabilities of middle class communities to make education work, you have to understand that what you are asking for is basically benevolent colonialism. If this is even possible, it’s going to have some colonial features. You can’t at the same time demand that we re-socialize your kids to be better students while also treating their existing culture and behaviors around school as sacrosanct.

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David Menefee-Libey, a ploy sci prof who does a lot of work related to education, argues that there was a kind of charter school treaty or ceasefire between the left and right, democrats and republicans with regard to education reform. The quick version is that in the 80s there was a big push for vouchers and privatization. Milton Friedman type stuff. Charter schools operated as a kind of negotiated compromise. Conservatives more or less agreed to stop pushing for vouchers, privatization, and religion in schools but liberals had to agree to charter schools and school choice that were outside of the typical union labor controls and stop the hard version of integration (i.e. busing). In return, liberals were able to pursue reforms to increase school funding and change governance structure with more support in various state legislatures. The conservatives got to increase their control over some schools via charters (which they'd historically lost in the 60s and 70s) and, more importantly, implement test-based accountability visible to the public in all public schools. A core example of this 'treaty' is California in the early 90s where a voucher program was on the ballot in 1992 alongside a charter school proposal. Charters won. imo the left got more out of this deal if only because the right wanted far more radical change.

This treaty lasted from about the end of the 80s through the mid 2010s. What broke it? Democrats' turn against charter schools. When various cities and states reduced or stopped authorizing new charter schools, especially in the big democratic states like NY and CA, the treaty broke down. When the Obama administration decided not to include charters in RTTT, the treaty broke down and republicans felt like the government was taking more control. When RTTT took away the accountability "stick" of school takeover and lessened the importance of testing, the treaty broke down. And, I'd throw in Common Core was perceived as further intrusion by the government (not federal, but seen that way) into the functioning of local schools. Charters and school choice began to be reassessed in terms of their impacts on segregation. On equity. Testing too. Testing is out of vogue and accountability is too. For conservatives this broke the treaty.

Rather than thinking of today's moment as some kind of rejection of education reform, I see conservatives today are returning to their long-term ideological stance. DeVos felt radical but she wasn't that so much as a return to the pre-charter consensus among conservatives that the appropriate vision for education in the United States is the one Matt describes here. Money in the hands of parents. Schools funded on a consumer model. No role for government to meddle in the religious curriculum or racial composition of schools. And, to Matt's point, there is no need to try and assure some kind of average level of academic outcome because, for conservatives, liberals have already abandoned their commitments in the 'treaty' to testing and accountability.

It's probably not a perfect analysis but it's an interesting departure from the typical framing of charter schools and school choice as a conservative effort to undermine public education. No, charter schools and school choice were the compromise to keep conservatives at the table and invested in America's public schools. They were the compromise to keep our political apparatus investing in an essential national institution. I don't know what happens next. Probably a lot of red states go full-voucher while a lot of blue states muddle around, unable to decide between liberal and progressive stances. What seems clear is that we can't use charter schools as a negotiated settlement anymore. School choice, meanwhile, is no longer the northeastern/upper midwestern flavor where you can apply to and attend any school in your district instead of the one closest to home. School choice is now synonymous with vouchers.

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I think you miss a bit of nuance in Freddie deBoer's position. My understanding of his view is that most education thinkers are confused about relative vs absolute effects.

I think Freddie thinks that schools can absolutely do better or worse in absolute terms. The issue is that people don't care very much about the absolute amount of learning going on, and instead care primarily about relative positioning. And the issue is that strong students will outperform weaker students under any educational system you implement, unless you do something perverse like intentionally sabotage the smartest kids.

So the skepticism from Freddie is not about education in general, but rather about education as a tool to create equality of opportunity. I think Freddie's view would be that we ought to focus on providing everyone with a high quality education, but stop worrying about trying to close various "gaps" that education is underpowered to fix.

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My wife taught in Milwaukee Public Schools for 6 years. I cannot stress enough the impact that student behavior and safety (as in the old fashioned "physical safety" sense) have on the classroom. Disruptive kids can really derail a learning. My wife was better than most teachers at spending time with these kids and winning them over, but of course there are limits to this. For some of these kids, it's just near impossible to break through. They just don't give a sh*t and want to sew chaos. In the event that a student was being too disruptive and she had to send them to the office as a last resort, they would be back like 15 minutes later and just disrupt again. It was nuts. Don't get me wrong, these kids deserve a good education too but like, how do you solve that? She was able to win those kids over like 95% of the time because she cared and wasn't just collecting a paycheck but that 5% cost her and her other students A LOT of grief.

She taught at Milwaukee Hamilton on the south side before moving to Ronald Reagan which is a public charter (still administered through MPS). For context, Reagan also serves the south side which is a mix of working class and low income students. It was essentially a night and day difference. Behavior problems still existed but they were usually less violent and nothing that she couldn't mitigate. In the extremely rare event that she had to remove a student, administration took it seriously and the kid was out of class for the remainder of the period. Their parents were called and usually furious at their kid and the kid would usually be much less disruptive after their parents blew up at them.

This is very unscientific and rudimentary but I honestly think school is just very uncool to certain segments of the population. They don't see the value in it and their parents are disengaged or entirely absent. That cultural issue is maybe impossible to efficiently solve but I think would reap enormous benefits. There absolutely are unhelpful teacher unions and bad teachers, too much focus on DEI, etc. I don't contest any of that. My point is that there is a big cultural component that you are often immediately shushed for bringing up by the DEI crowd. If you find a way to start ameliorating that, I think it makes the other reform efforts easier.

Anyways, let me know what you guys think!

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Apr 19·edited Apr 19

It’s very strange that MY is basically against *academic* based selectivity in education. It’s probably because in all of his long posts on the topic he doesn’t really seem to care about the actual topic, ie the learning itself.

It’s hard for me to see how you can believe selection is bad and maintain actual belief in education in the literal sense. So long as your classes are highly mixed-ability you’re going to have to teach to the lowest common denominator, at best wasting the potential of the high ability students (at worst alienating them and actually doing them some positive harm as a result of their boredom leading them astray). Alternatively you aim higher than the lowest denominator, inevitably leaving behind the weakest students. In practice you usually aim for the middle and effectively leave behind both the top and bottom parts of your class. Only in a relatively academically homogeneous class is no one left behind. The only way to have that is via selection of some sort, at least at the class level if not the school level.

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Matt doesn't say this explicitly, but this isn't 15 years ago when you could argue with a straight face that NCLB and Reihan Salam/Ross Douthat-type proposals could conceivably be adopted by the conservative movement. It's all "do whatever pisses off liberals the most, all the time" now. And if that means stuff like what's happening in Arizona to give money directly to people who are already sending their kids to religious schools, all the better. "More for us, the rest of you are on your own" (I'm avoiding the profane version of that phrase in these comments) is now the guiding principle of conservatism and every proposal should be viewed in that light until proven otherwise.

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Damn guys, I wanted to comment, but you've all already made most of my points.

I'll just say I agree with most of the article. Most of what makes for a "good" school is the selection effects. To put it bluntly, schools where most kids' parents give a shit will be "good" schools with pretty good test scores. For that reason, more teachers will want to work there. One observation I had from working as a floating sub was that the poor schools were constantly down like 3 or 4 staff members because a certain number of teachers are absent each day (teachers get sick a lot) and most subs don't want to take those jobs. This makes those schools even more unpleasant.

I'm probably more sympathetic to religious parents than many here. If you want to send your kids to a school that reflects your religious beliefs, go ahead. There aren't enough hyperreligious parents for that to totally destabilize the school system. What IS a bigger issue is that school selection/school discipline issue. And as many here have pointed out, you can't really blame most parents for trying to send their kids to the "best" schools. The problem is that this is a zero sum game. Peer effects are real. If you take a kid out of a "bad" school and put him in a "good" school, he'll most likely do better. I've witnessed it first hand. So ideally, you want to break up low income schools. The problem is that if you gerrymander school boundaries to send an equal number of low income students to each school, parents will figure that out and move their kids further out in to the burbs. It's a game of cat and mouse. The best solution I can come up with I'd a system like Arizona's but with extra funding for "difficult" students. Schools can use that extra money to reduce class sizes, hire one-on-ones, or invest in some other program to attract parents. Keep upping the number until parents are basically indifferent between each different school and allow the schools to differentiate themselves along a different axis (this school has good sports, this school has good academics, all the religious parents send their kids here, etc.)

I'm sure my solution isn't perfect but it's the best I can come up with.

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Would more aggressive educational sorting actually make things worse for the most disadvantaged students? Like if we removed the students with the relatively most engaged parents from an already poorly performing school district, would that somehow make things even worse for the remaining students? If so, what is the proposed mechanism? Eg, it will be even harder to recruit teachers.

And even if it does diminish the academic outcomes for the most disadvantaged, I still think we need to balance that against the counterfactual outcomes for the students that would’ve exited this poorly performing school district. Their highly-engaged parents recognize that their children could do better academically if they were concentrated in a separate school with other students having similarly-engaged parents. Hence why they fight so hard for tracking, magnetic school, charter schools, and other sorting mechanisms. Is it just for us to trade that away in the name of egalitarianism?

Beyond the fairness question for students, we must also consider the political implications of failing to manage these parents' desire for more educational sorting. Not only will they be a potent political force, should they lose the political fight, they’re better positioned to exit the public school system; either by private school enrollment or moving. So we’ll get some amount of sorting regardless. Worse, we risk losing their political support for public education in general or forfeiting their tax dollars.

Would it not be better to meet these parents' needs through more aggressive educational sorting within the public school system through mechanisms like tracking and magnet schools?

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