“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.