Wednesday, July 26, 2006

School choice that doesn't screw over the poor

Via Political Animal:
Harry [Brighouse from Crooked Timber] passes along an idea from Julian Betts about a market-like system in which schools have a fixed pot of money to bid for students:

Betts suggests this: first fund the schools equally on a per-student basis. Then distribute trade-able rights to admit highly advantaged students; and allow schools to auction those rights. Schools would then be forced to figure out how much they valued the money they were spending relative to the highly advantaged children they wanted. We don’t know what the outcome would be. At one end of the spectrum you’d have schools with high concentrations of advantage and not much money; at the other end of the spectrum high concentrations of disadvantage and loads of money. It would probably take a few years for administrators to work out what the real costs of disadvantaged children were; but they would have a powerful incentive to work it out.

Schools would have the right to accept the students they wanted, but good schools would end up with very strong financial incentives to accept poor students and bad schools would end up with plenty of money to use to attract better students (as well as to buy more books and hire better teachers).

This is weird becuase I was suggesting the same idea to my girlfriend who works at the Oakland Unified School District teaching the difficult kids (they're not stupid, they're just jerks). At the time I noted a couple problems with the idea which Harry assures us Betts deals with. A couple issues off the top of my head: How do we decide who is a "highly advantaged student"? Is this decided by the school? How would we stop rural schools with little competition from gaming the system?


Paul said...

Without having read Betts, I don't see determining "disadvantaged" status as being a substantial obstacle. In fact, I think it probably could be arranged to have a range of disadvantagedness, so to speak, such that different students who were considered disadvantaged to different degrees could be worth more or less in the scheme.

There is tremendous debate about what causes students to have difficulties succeeding in school, but there is widespread agreement about what factors correlate with success (or failure) in school, and it seems to me that correlates would be perfectly adequate to implement a plan like Betts'.

One piece of the puzzle I'd be curious to see if Betts comments on is that, as I understand it, while economic status is an important indicator of the success of a school or district relative to other schools or districts, it becomes much less important when making intraschool comparisons between individual students. What that would seem to suggest is that you want to avoid concentrating students with that particular risk factor. That is, I think you want diverse schools, since diversity seems ameliorate certain risk factors.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Speaking of the nature-nurture debate Kevin Drum has that covered too. It's interesting to think how those conclusions might affect this debate.

As for the concentrating bad students it sounds like another facet of the concentrating poverty issue. I agree. It seems that though this system would be good for ensuring that schools are funded to the appropriate levels there doesn't seem to be a mechanism to ensure that they use that funding appropriatly. I mean, what's to stop a school from just catering to poor students and not making much progress on them? I guess you can say that school performance is seperate from school funding but maybe you could tweak Betts' model to fix that. Why not offer more credits to schools which have a higher value-added education? (meaning, helping a 8th grader increase their reading level from 5th to 7th grade would be worth more than helping a different 8ths grader go from 7th to 8th grade reading level)

But then you'd have to be able to value students which would require testing and crap... this is hard.

Paul said...

Testing's another thing I don't see having to be much of a problem. Besides being something schools are already extremely familiar with, test results are themselves useful predictors of student success. In fact, I think testing would be invaluable in reevaluating a student's degree of advantage or disadvantage (which, presumably, you would want to do periodically to keep the incentives appropriately aligned with the realities of the situation.) If exiting 8th grader Jim is reading at a 6th grade level, he's got an awfully big chance of not graduating from high school on time, or at all.

Are there administrative issues I'm not seeing, or is your objection more principled?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Well, then you end up with people teaching to the test and you have *lots* of problems with cheating especially if school funding is on the line. I mean, really you're just giving a school-wide incentive to collude on making the scores look better than they are. Look at Bush's schools program in Texas where principals were encouraging teachers to change answer.

I guess maybe these are fundemental problems with any kind of reward scheme but they have been causes of concern in the past.