Friday, October 9, 2009

Keep the Cap

I don't know if you've been following this story like I have, but some study just came out showing that Harvard students outperform students from other universities and that Harvard as a whole does a better job educating students. Naturally, this has given rise to calls for action. The one that's seems to be gaining the most steam is the call to open more Harvards. After all, if one Harvard does such a great job, imagine what would happen if we opened three Harvards or even 10 Harvards.

In case you haven't caught on, this is a set-up so I can talk about charter schools and the policy follow ups in light of the Hoxby report, which found that New York City charter schools consistently outperformed the city's traditional public schools. What made the Hoxby report so interesting was that its findings flew in the face of the results of a recent national study that found that most charters were as good or worse than traditional public schools, with a relatively small percentage outperforming their traditional peers. Hoxby's report seemed to buck that trend, at least in New York City. Hearing only what they want to hear and seeing only what they want to see, the charter school backers in New York declared that Hoxby's study proved conclusively that charters are always better schools and therefore we should have lots more of them. Calls began to remove the state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools permitted in New York (which currently stands at 200). I think that's it for exposition.

If all you know is the Hoxby report, it makes sense to want more charter schools. After all, apparently there's proof that they are better. This is problematized somewhat by the CREDO report which found that charter schools tend not to be better. What's missing from the discussion right now is someone pondering what it is about New York charter schools that makes them exceptional (assuming the validity of both the CREDO and Hoxby reports).

That brings us back to Harvard with the disclaimer that I'm working on logic here as opposed to solid research to back up what I'm saying. It's good logic, but it's not definitive nor should it be taken that way.

Part of what makes Harvard successful is that there's only one. Thus, that one Harvard is able to attract the best professors, the best researchers, and the best students (I'm not trying to get into an argument about creaming here, just stay with the analogy). If there were two Harvards, that pool of the very very elite would be diluted by about 50% at each individual Harvard. If you get to 10 Harvards (to say nothing of 200) you get even more dilution. What makes Harvard special is that there's one and they can make it the very best that it can be.

So now let's veer back into charter territory. It seems to me to be logical that when we cap the number of charter schools allowed in the state, we'll then end up with the 200 best charter schools that want to open. Just like Harvard will take the top professors and top students, the state will take the top schools. That makes sense. Doesn't it then also make sense that if we threw open the doors to everyone we wouldn't be getting the same quality? If Harvard let anyone who wanted to teach there actually teach there, do you think instruction would be of the same quality?

I've written before that I find it hard to believe that just having the label charter affixed to a school makes it a better school than one without that label. Maybe we should consider the possibility that the charter cap we have in place is helping New York's charter system by ensuring only the best get through and that lifting the cap could actually be detrimental. That may or may not be the case. But it sure seems logical.


Gideon said...

What a ridiculous post! The CREDO study did not include charter schools in NY, so it's not illogical that NY charter schools might be doing better, whereas other states might not have the best systems for approving or monitoring their schools. And there is more than one Harvard: try Princeton, Yale, Stanford, U Chicago, the list goes on. Not to mention all of the excellent public universities and colleges that provide excellent educations. Not only that, but we don't need a Harvard for every students, since a Harvard is not necessarily the best fit for every student. Charter schools are about choice, and providing parents with schools that are a good fit for their children, especially for students in districts where there are no quality schools to begin with.

Also, if not mistaken, the CREDO study found that by the third year charter students were outperforming district schools. So maybe it does make sense to lift the cap, and give these new schools a few years to find their legs before judging them. We can't just keep sending kids to failing schools year after year and do nothing.

John said...


Thanks for reading and sorry to hear that you disagree. Let me clarify a few points that will hopefully make my original post seem a little less ridiculous.

First, whether or not New York schools were included in the CREDO study, you have to see that there’s a disconnect between that study and the Hoxby study. Lacking enough statistics knowledge to definitively rebut one or the other, I’m willing to posit that they’re both correct. In other words, New York charter schools tend to do better than traditional public schools while such is not the case on a national level. Assuming that it’s not just something in the water in New York, I think it’s worth examining what that difference might be. A theory I think is worth considering is that New York’s cap acts as a kind of quality control.

That brings me to the second point. While there’s only one Harvard, you’re right that there are other top flight schools in the country. However, each of those schools retains their exclusivity. That is to say that rather than except all students who meet a certain threshold, they pick the very best students. By picking the top students rather than all students who meet the basic requirements, Harvard and others can be pretty confident that they’re getting bright students who will likely succeed. Let’s not get caught up too much in the analogy (i.e. Harvard IS charter schools) and rather focus on the logic that by picking only a select number of students or charters allows for more opportunity to weed out weaker applicants. If that’s the case, then the charter school cap in New York may actually help ensure that the general quality of charter schools in New York is as high as can be (just like Harvard’s exclusivity helps it maintain its lofty reputation). It may turn out to not be the case, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest as a possibility.

Thanks again for reading.

Anonymous said...

My question is this: Why do people assume that a cap lift means that the level of school design quality will go down?

If ten schools bad schools apply for 5 slots (cap), then 0 schools should be approved.

If ten good schools apply with unlimited slots (no cap), then 10 schools should be approved.

If you are worried about the quality of charter schools, look at the quality of the authorizers, SUNY CSI, SED/Board of Regents, and NYC Chancellor.

John said...


I definitely hear you that good schools are good schools. What I'm trying to puzzle out is why the quality of New York charter schools seems to be higher than the quality of charter schools elsewhere in the country.

Let's go back to your example of the 10 good charter schools. Each one would be a fine school and it meets whatever criteria are in place for approving a charter school. Without a cap, all 10 of those schools would presumably be accepted and allowed to open. However, if there is a cap (of, say, 5) then only the best of that pool are allowed to open. Rather than accepting 10 schools that are good enough (to meet the bar), you're picking the schools that are actually the best. Logically, it seems like this would ensure that you're getting a higher quality of average school than a state that accepts all the schools that are simply good enough.

Let me also reiterate that I don't know if this is what's happening. I'm working without research to back me up here. However, as a logical sort of thought experiment, it seems to make a lot of sense.

Thanks for reading.