More hope than fear in our data”

The Atlantic; December 30, 2015

Joshua Angrist, pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at MIT


Reason for despair: “No Excuses” ped­a­gogy is char­ac­ter­ized by a long school day and year, an empha­sis on tra­di­tional read­ing and math, exten­sive use of Teach for America interns, data-driven instruc­tion (just as pro sports teams use data and review video), and an empha­sis on dis­ci­pline and com­port­ment. Our research team and other col­leagues have repeat­edly and rig­or­ously shown the power of this approach to pro­duce life-changing gains for stu­dents who would oth­er­wise do poorly (the “No Excuses” moniker refers to schools and not stu­dents: No excuses allowed for a fail­ure to edu­cate). I’m wor­ried because the foun­da­tions of this suc­cess are under attack: The fed­eral gov­ern­ment and many dis­tricts now pro­pose to limit the test­ing that pro­vides essen­tial feed­back and account­abil­ity. And it has been reg­u­lar, reli­able test­ing that’s laid the empir­i­cal foun­da­tion for dis­cus­sions of school qual­ity and edu­ca­tional inequal­ity. Also wor­ry­ing: In Massachusetts and else­where, con­cerns about racial imbal­ance in school dis­ci­pline are mak­ing it harder to use sus­pen­sion to estab­lish a struc­tured and safe school envi­ron­ment (the pri­mary ben­e­fi­cia­ries of which are poor African American chil­dren).
Reason for hope: In the 21st-century, admin­is­tra­tions from both par­ties expanded the fed­eral role in edu­ca­tion, encour­ag­ing reform and exper­i­men­ta­tion to an unprece­dented degree. These pol­icy explo­rations have been extra­or­di­nar­ily fruit­ful, yield­ing find­ings that are as clear and con­vinc­ing as any in the his­tory of social sci­ence. The most impor­tant of these find­ings is my rea­son for hope: Although char­ter schools vary in qual­ity, schools adher­ing to “No Excuses” ped­a­gogy (like KIPP, and many of the char­ters in Boston, Denver, New Orleans, and New York) con­sis­tently pro­duce spec­tac­u­lar achieve­ment gains for low-income minor­ity students—enough to close the black-white achieve­ment gap in a few years of enroll­ment. We see this in data from ran­dom­ized admis­sions lot­ter­ies and from dis­tricts (like the New Orleans Recovery School District) that assign respon­si­bil­ity for fail­ing schools to “No Excuses” net­works. Research designs exploit­ing lot­ter­ies and takeovers take the guess­work and pol­i­tics out of the analy­sis of edu­ca­tion policy.