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13

Jul

Can everyone win in the APS/Beltline dispute?

Co-written Op Ed for Creative Loafing.

04

Jun

A New Day In APS: Event Postponed Until Tomorrow

On a fanfare-filled day in late March, the newly elected Atlanta Board of Education announced that Austin Superintendent Meria Carstarphen had been selected to take the helm of the city’s schools. 

Carstarphen promised “a new day for APS” while Board Chair Courtney English said it was time to “believe again.”  The children at Hope Hill Elementary smiled, hugged the new leader, and posed for pictures.

The usual dissidents chirped loudly.  Union representative Verdailia Turner spoke of “red flags” and sent out an incoherent email listing all the conspiracy theories that she believed Carstarphen to be involved with. Ed Johnson complained that Austin might be more “starboard” while Atlanta was more “portside” on the ship of education.

More levelheaded observers promised to wait and see.  Sure, she had raised graduation rates in Austin but no faster than the state of Texas as a whole.  Sure, the district’s TUDA scores were high, but they hadn’t risen much during Carstarphen’s tenure, and most of the performance seemed to reflect Austin’s demographics more than any sort of education miracles. 

If nothing else, Carstarphen seemed energetic, decisive, and unafraid to speak directly, three qualities that themselves would represent steps forward for district leadership.

Nine weeks later, APS is still waiting on Carstarphen to arrive (she is scheduled to start July 7th) and still hoping she will bring with her a new day.  Signs of its future arrival are difficult to spot in the district, which just completed a disappointing hiring cycle of 19 new school principals. 

Impact of Strong Principals

For evidence of the impact an effective principal can have on a school, one needs look no further than Coan Middle School in the Jackson Cluster.  Just two years after taking on the role of school leader, Dr. Betsy Bockman lifted the school from the bottom of the barrel to one of the city’s top performers.  Today, sixth graders at the school outperform eighth graders at King Middle School down the street.  

It is difficult to pinpoint a single strategy that led to this transformation; instead, the results seem to be the culmination of several small things the school got right under Dr. Bockman’s leadership.  She doubled math instruction to help students catch up, she removed ineffective teachers from the classroom, and she called on students to take ownership of their education by setting achievement goals through the year.

After the Davis administration removed several school leaders earlier this spring, there seemed to be a possibility that more high-flying principals like Dr. Bockman would be attracted to lead the districts’ schools.  The need to hire 19 school leaders gave the district a chance to significantly raise the bar for leadership at about 25% of its schools. Weeks later, it appears that opportunity will be largely missed.

The district has now hired all 19 principals.  Ten were hired from outside the district while nine were already APS employees.  Of the ten hired from other districts, six came from Fulton County and four came from Clayton County.  Five had prior experience as a principal while five were assistant principals at their former schools.

Academic Background of New Hires

Before delving into the new hires’ employment history and the academic performance of schools they led, I first looked at the thing they all share—an academic background.  For context, let’s begin by considering the academic background of the district’s high-performing charter school principals.

APS has nine charter schools that outperform what would be expected based on the FRL populations they serve.[i]  Principals who graduated from a top-tier university lead all nine of those schools[ii].

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This consistency is contrasted by APS where only 5 of the 19 new hires have ever graduated from a Tier 1 institution.  Despite having multiple degrees, seven of the hires have only attended the lowest-quality institutions.

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Can good leaders come from low-quality academic backgrounds?  Of course.  Can a district find diamonds in the rough? Sure.  But districts seeking transformation may find an easy path forward by moving away from diamonds in the rough and toward pre-cut and polished diamonds. 

Copying best practices from our charter schools is not rocket science.  They aren’t parting the Red Sea.  They are just doing some basic things right, and one of those things is staffing schools with leaders who have themselves been academic success stories.  

Next, I took a look at the academic performance of schools managed by the new hires. 

Experience as Principal in Other Districts

Of the five principals hired who have experience serving as principals of schools in other districts, two have led schools with solid academic track records while three led schools with disconcerting underachievement.

On this front, Buck Greene (Sutton) and Marcus Jackson (Carver – Health) both show promise.  Buck was the principal at Johns Creek High School, one of the highest achieving high schools in Fulton County while Marcus led Kendrick Middle School in Clayton County.  Both schools earned CCRPI scores above what would be expected given the school’s population of FRL students.

On the other hand, Jesse Berger (Gideons), Tim Guiney (Grady), and Richard Fowler (Mays) all led underachieving schools.  In fact, all three led schools that were in the bottom 1/3 of the state relative to what would be expected based on their FRL rates (readers can evaluate CCRPI performance with the graphs posted here).

More troubling, Richard Fowler, whose school ranks in the 16th percentile statewide, has a worrying employment history, having served as principal of the low-scoring Fulton school for less than two years before seeking a job with APS.

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While past performance is not always indicative of future potential, it is a strong indicator of leader quality, and it should only be ignored after a great deal of thought has been given and reasons for the lack of achievement have been discussed with the candidate.

Did HR consult the Research & Evaluation department to inquire about the historical performance of these principals?  If so, perhaps they determined that other qualities outweighed the achievement records.  If not, shouldn’t that be a standard part of the hiring process going forward?  Plenty of people can talk the talk in an interview, but the district’s students deserve leaders who have a track record of delivering results. 

Experience as Assistant Principal in Other Districts

Five of the hires from outside the district do not have experience as principals but have worked as assistant principals.  Evaluating the quality of assistant principals with CCRPI data is more difficult than evaluating principals because APs are not responsible for the overall direction of the schools at which they work.

Instead, one of the most relevant objective measures for these employees would be their employment history.  Of the five principals hired, all show cause for concern.

Four of the hires—Josie Love (Carver Technology), Tracie Astin (South Atlanta CAD), Amia Burnette (Bethune), and Laryn Nelson (Young)—come to APS from short stints at schools in Fulton County.  All of them have spent less than two years in their current roles.  Both Amia Burnette and Laryn Nelson have been moved around the county and most recently were moved from high school to elementary assistant principal roles.  Such moves are generally considered demotions. 

A Fulton administrator asked about the quality of candidates remarked that rejects from their district often land jobs with APS. 

One of the five, Ms. Thalise Perry has a more stable record of employment; however, according to those who interviewed Ms. Perry, the resume she provided contained several typos and she rambled rather than answering questions coherently. 

When APS hires staff from other districts, it needs to be aware of the lemon dance.  The district cannot continue to be the dumping grounds for leaders who fail to pass the leadership bar set by Fulton County and other districts in the area.  It needs to seek out leaders on upward trajectories, not settle for people looking for a new gig before their current employer asks them to leave. 

Even more concerning is the fact that parents recognized the lack of quality applicants but their voices were ignored.  Despite formally requesting a new slate of candidates, parents in the Mays Cluster were given the cold shoulder by the outgoing administration.  Three of the candidates they interviewed were hired to lead APS schools over objections about applicant quality. 

Hired From Within APS

As mentioned above, nine of the new hires are promotions from within APS or permanent appointments of interim principals.  Several of the placements seem promising.  Stimpson & Watkins both come from strong academic backgrounds.  Dr. Bockman was transformational during her time at Coan Middle School.  Mr. Douglass is reportedly respected by teachers and students at North Atlanta High School while Ms. Powell has been recognized for her efforts to raise graduation rates at Therrell.   

Still, APS doesn’t have enough quality leaders internally to staff all of its schools.  Instead, it is essential that the HR department also be capable of attracting outside talent to the system. 

With the cycle just completed, that didn’t seem to be the case.  Rather than rummaging the country for top applicants, APS hired the folks who landed in its lap.  Nine candidates were already working in the district, while 10 came from two adjacent districts.  Many of them have troubling performance histories, academic backgrounds, and employment records.  Though they may defy the odds and achieve at high levels, it is time for APS to choose leaders with the odds in their favor.

Still Waiting on the New Day

Four weeks before the new Superintendent’s arrival, there is still cause for hope.  Carstarphen has established new HR leadership with Pamela Hall and Skye Duckett coming from Austin.  Though Carstarphen approved all of the 19 principal hires, the process and recruitment were largely driven by the outgoing administration.  There is potential that Carstarphen’s HR team will move the department beyond its role of checking boxes into a role of recruiting and thoroughly vetting candidates to ensure quality hires.

Some evidence suggests that Ms. Hall and Ms. Duckett will have higher expectations of applicants seeking jobs with the district, particularly on the dimension of academic preparation.  Over the seven months ended March 31, 2014, APS hired a total of 202 teachers while the Austin Independent School District hired 212. 

A review of the institutions attended by each of those hires reveals that the most common Tier for the educational background of APS teacher hires was Tier 3, with almost twice as many new teachers coming from that Tier when compared to Austin.  In Austin, 70% of hires came from Tier 1 or Tier 2 institutions.

Though APS was able to hire 18% of its teachers from Tier 1 universities, most of those hires came through Teach For America.  In a dumbfounding move, the current administration decided to nix its relationship with Teach For America for the upcoming year, cutting off the district’s primary source of staff educated at the nation’s top institutions (Update: I understand that the district has decided not to pursue this plan and will be hiring TFA corps members this year).  Detailed hiring data can be accessed here

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The APS of today seems to be the APS of yesterday.  Perhaps changes are being planned for tomorrow.


[i] Though KIPP Strive Primary and KIPP Vision Primary do not yet participate in the CRCT, their leaders have been included based upon performance on MAP assessments and the network’s track record with each of its other schools.

[ii] Tiers 1, 2, and 3 were developed using data released in the White House College Scorecard.  Tier 1 institutions graduate at least 75% of students who enroll in the institution.  Tier 2 institutions graduate at least 45% of students who enroll.  Tier 3 institutions graduate fewer than 45% of students who enroll.

01

May

Economics’ Manifest Destiny: Gary Becker and the Conquest of New Realms

Note: The following post is a paper I wrote this semester for a History of Economic Thought course.  We were asked to write about the economic contribution of a Nobel Laureate.  Though it is not directly related to the education topics I normally write about, after getting the paper back today I felt sad to think I had put effort into something that would likely never be read again.  So, I am posting it to the blog. 

By Jarod Apperson

Much like an aggressive first date, Gary Becker extended the invisible hand of economics into a host of uncharted territories.  From early theories framing racial discrimination through an economic lens to later work on drug addiction, most of Becker’s writings serve to expand the scope of economic theory beyond its original home in the world of production, demand and trade.  Today, believers in the supremacy of rational individual choice need no longer limit their faith to the banality of labor negotiations and the like, for Becker’s body of work develops a host of economic theories rationalizing the decisions individuals make through all aspects of life.  Over a prolific six-decade career, Becker’s contribution served to further establish the assumptions underlying neoclassical economic theory as natural laws, governing not just trade but all choices, laws which persist independently of context, culture, and time.  

Biography

Becker’s own telling of his personal history, as published in Les Prix Nobel 1992, betrays a faith in the malleability of life and the extent to which its course is dependent on an individual’s personal choices.  He chooses to highlight the “up-by-the-bootstraps” anecdotes commonly shared by tea-party members and other neoclassical enthusiasts as evidence that their current circumstance was mostly earned through their own grit and perseverance.  Present are references to the fact that his parents both dropped out of school in the eighth grade while he went on to earn a Ph.D. from one of the nation’s most respected economics programs (Becker 1992). However, scant recognition is made of the comparative early advantages afforded Becker by a literate father who owned his own business, a family that could afford to live in a respectable school district, and the famously successful New York Jewish community to which the Beckers belonged, providing consistent examples of achievement that could be modeled.  Rather than a life largely determined by these circumstances with marginal augmentations the result of his decisions, Becker understands his personal history as largely determined by a series of his own actions, a perception consistent with the neoclassical theory underlying much of his economic contribution.   

Just fourteen months after the 1929 Black Tuesday stock market crash ushered in the Great Depression, Becker was delivered to two immigrants, an eastern European mother and a Canadian father.  Though born in the small town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Becker spent the majority of his childhood in Brooklyn, New York where his family moved before he reached school age. Becker’s early education failed to garner his full attention.  Instead, the young boy’s interests leaned more toward athletics.  Meanwhile, Becker’s father was an avid reader of newspapers on politics and other current events.  As his vision began to erode, he enlisted Gary to read articles aloud.  This experience laid the foundation for Becker to build his understanding of social interactions.  By the time he reached high school, Becker had developed a more keen interest in academics and was particularly drawn to the study of mathematics, having joined the math team at age 16 (Becker 1992).

Becker went on to attend Princeton University before earning his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago where he studied under Milton Friedman.  Upon completing his dissertation, Becker remained at Chicago for three years before moving to Columbia University.  While at Columbia, Becker earned the John Bates Clark Medal.  Following a distasteful observation of the 1968 student riots at Columbia, Becker decided to return to Chicago where he remains as a professor today. 

Becker married the mother of his two daughters while completing his doctorate.  Following her untimely death in 1970, he spent a decade single before marrying Guity Nashat, a historian of the Middle East, whom he continues to be partnered with today.  Guity eventually convinced Becker to begin writing a monthly column for Business Week that he credits with helping him develop the capacity to refine his ideas and explain them to non-academic audiences (Becker 1992).

Major Contributions to Economic Theory

In 1992, Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in the fields of discrimination, crime, family behavior, and human capital (Becker 1993).  The first three each represented a new realm into which economic foundations could be applied to develop theoretical frameworks for understanding individual choices.  The last represented an augmentation of theory underpinning the economics of labor.  The remainder of this paper will focus on the contributions Becker made to these four fields.

Discrimination

Prior to the 1957 publication of Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination, racism was not widely seen as the sort of topic appropriate for economic analysis.  To an observer of the world, the choice of whether to discriminate or not might seem binary.  Businesses either set race-based criteria for the customers they would serve or they did not.  Neighborhoods were either segregated or they were not.  Schools either had rules prohibiting attendance by blacks or they did not.  The framing of these decisions began to change with the publication of Becker’s first book, which was an expansion of his University of Chicago dissertation and extended marginal analysis to racism. 

In understanding and evaluating Becker’s theory, it is relevant to consider the personal context from which he approached the topic.  During the years of Becker’s childhood, Brooklyn was home to immigrants from a variety of backgrounds; however, the communities were almost exclusively European, and 97.2% of the county’s residents were white according to the 1930 census.[1]  The lack of racial diversity in Becker’s immediate surroundings provides an interesting backdrop to his work on discrimination, suggesting that, despite any empathy he may have genuinely felt for those being analyzed, the theories are likely more informed by deductive conjecture than induced by personal relationships or observations from his own experience. 

Rather than establishing racism as a binary choice, Becker theorized that racism existed on a continuum.  As such, individuals harboring racist attitudes require compensating differentials in order to conduct business or otherwise interact with groups they would prefer to avoid (Becker 1957).  These individuals can then maximize their total well being by considering the race-adjusted marginal utility of a choice.  If the differential compensation were high enough, individuals would choose to conduct business despite their racist attitudes.  For example, one hiring manager might be considered a 25-cent racist, while another more bigoted manager, could be viewed as a 75-cent racist, requiring employees of a certain race to work for a wage at least 75 cents less than other similarly skilled workers in order to compensate the manager for his “distaste” for integrated working conditions.

While this theory has some appeal and Becker was able to develop an interpretation of empirical wage data in a way consistent with the notion, it also seems to have a significant weakness when viewed in the historical context of the time Becker was writing.  Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse’s book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism chronicles the process of racial desegregation in the 1950’s and 60’s.  One finding that stands out from his work is the extremity of outcomes.  For example, Collier Heights in west Atlanta went from 100% white to 100% black within a few months (Kruse 2005).  At the same time, housing prices plummeted.  This outcome was not limited to a single neighborhood, but instead was a pervasive occurrence across the South.  Were Becker’s theory accurate, one would expect new whites who required lower compensating differentials to have been attracted to the neighborhoods as prices fell.  However, the reality is that such interest never materialized, and now 70 years later the neighborhood remains almost 100% black.  While some bigots may exist on the continuum described by Becker’s work, the empirical evidence from the period instead seems to expose Becker’s model as the exception with fully elastic demand as the rule.

Whether the work holds up under scrutiny or not, Becker’s first attempt at publication successfully shifted the conversation around discrimination and expanded the creed of rational choice to a new realm, an accomplishment that in itself is remarkable.  Much like Becker’s work on discrimination sought to develop a rational lens through which the decisions of racism could be understood, his later work on crime and punishment attempted to rationalize the choices of criminals.

Crime

            Imagine a tall, muscular man who has placed a gun to the head of over 200 individuals and, with the threat of death, demanded their belongings.  One Sunday morning, after steeping himself a cup of Earl Grey, he sits down to read The New Yorker, as is his weekend ritual.  Coming to an article filed under “Annals of Crime,” he learns that many states, including his own, have raised both the punishment for committing robbery and the likelihood of being caught.  After opening an Excel spreadsheet entitled “Tradeoffs and Benefits to My Criminal Activity” and making the appropriate adjustments for new information gleaned from the article, he learns that the expected, risk-adjusted return on his career path is now negative.  Aghast, he decides to set aside all criminal activity and applies for a job as a cashier at McDonalds, where he lawfully spends the remainder of his existence.  Such is the theoretical life of a criminal in Becker’s conception.

Delivering his Nobel Lecture, Becker reflected on the motivation that led him to pursue the field of criminal choices, citing a mid-century academic climate where behavior of criminals was largely attributed to factors outside the criminal’s control.  He “was not sympathetic to the assumption that criminals had radically different motivations from everyone else” (Becker 1993).  With an intent to counter this paradigm, Becker published “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach” in 1968.  The paper examined a wide range of criminal activity from vehicle theft to the violation of anti-trust laws, and it examined appropriate responses.  Again, the impetus for the work is relevant.  Becker had a personally held belief—not based on empirical evidence—that criminals were rationally motivated and he chose to develop a theory formalizing that faith out of frustration that an alternate perspective dominated the prevailing academic discourse.

Broadly, Becker’s work suggests that the penalties levied for crimes should reflect the damages resulting from the action with additional consideration given to the cost of enforcement and the possibility of shifting some of this cost to criminals themselves through higher penalties (Becker 1968).  In this effort, the argument succeeds when readers accept the basic premise that criminal choices flow from rational evaluations of risk and reward, but it falls short should the reader find this foundation implausible.  The approach appears informative for civil damages, where judges must determine how much to award the injured party in the case of patent infringement or negligence as these parties are often highly educated and it can be shown that significant amounts of thought have gone into their business decisions.  However, empirical evidence calls into question whether the theory can realistically be extended to wider criminal activity.  For example, work by Becker’s colleague Steven Levitt and Columbia University’s Sudhir Venkatesh evaluated a Chicago gang and showed that the typical member earned just $3.30 per hour, significantly less than the minimum wage (Levitt and Venkatesh 2000).  Not rocking the boat, the two authors explained their finding as confirmation that people work diligently toward the possibility of large payoffs, whether those payoffs are likely or not.  Yet, less zealous neoclassical adherents may consider it equally compelling evidence that criminal choices are often irrational, calling into question the broad applicability of Becker’s theory. 

Family Behavior

Continuing his expedition through life’s major decisions, Becker next tackled marriage and the family unit.  He published A Treatise on the Family one year after the consummation of his second marriage.  Forestalling any possibility this event might cause some to misconstrue him as a hopeless romantic, Becker’s contribution to the evaluation of family was “the assumption that when men and women decide to marry, or have children, or divorce, they attempt to raise their welfare by comparing benefits and costs” (Becker 1993).  The astute reader will notice the similarity between this work and Becker’s contribution to crime.  Essentially, it is yet another extension of the idea that individuals make life decisions by determining the actions that will maximize their expected utility.

            One unique aspect of Becker’s work on the family is the incorporation of altruism into utility functions.  Family members often make choices that are beneficial to another member with no observable value flowing to the individual taking action. A husband opening the car door for his wife might seem irrational under a standard utility function unless he somehow derives personal satisfaction from the process.  Recognizing this weakness in the theory, Becker developed a utility model which incorporated a measure of altruism (Becker and Barro 1986).  Consider the following utility function:

U0v(C0) + αU1

In this model developed by Becker, the utility function of person zero is said to incorporate altruism because her/his wellbeing is dependent not only on consumption but also on the utility of person one.  The α represents the extent to which the individual is altruistic.  So someone like Mother Theresa may have an α above one, indicating that she values the utility of others more than she values utility from her own consumption while Justin Bieber would likely have an α closer to zero. 

            Starting from this interesting foundation, Becker developed a theory wherein families choose the optimal number of children by maximizing such an equation.  Conceptually, the idea is compelling, and it helps explain why fertility rates vary across countries depending on the level of economic opportunity.  However, despite Becker’s claims to the contrary, the model’s construction seems to still be focused on rational self-interest, missing what some might call the whole point of altruism.  Yes, the utility of person zero is dependent on the utility of person one, but that alone doesn’t make person zero altruistic.  Instead, he/she could be fully selfish, yet recognize that his/her personal utility improved when the needs of others were met.  In contrast, the historical and philosophical concept of altruism connotes selflessness.  With this in mind, it seems that Becker’s contribution to family choices explained some facets of fertility observed in the real world, but the theoretical framework employed to achieve this end conflates standard concepts of selfishness and altruism.

Human Capital

            The final area of contribution explored in this paper differs from the previous three.  While each of those expanded economic theory along the extensive margin and entered what were historically considered the province of other social sciences, Becker’s contribution to human capital more intensively tilled the fertile ground of labor market theory.  Prior to Becker’s contribution, most labor market theory rested on a foundation of homogeneous agents.  With the publication of “Investment in Human Capital: A Theoretical Analysis,” Becker posited that the theory could be amended to introduce heterogeneity of workers through the incorporation of human capital (Becker 1962).

            Becker’s early work on human capital primarily focused on investment in the training of a workforce.  He identified several facts about the real world which did not seem to be consistent with the theoretical models accepted at the time.  Two facts were: earnings typically increase with age, and unemployment rates are negatively correlated with the level of skill.  Unless heterogeneity of marginal productivity could be established, the variation observed in wages and likelihood of experiencing unemployment might seem to contradict John Bates Clark’s work showing that under a competitive, capitalistic structure wages are determined by the marginal productivity of labor (Becker 1962).  Expanding Clark’s theory, Becker showed that when workers have accumulated greater levels of human capital they become more valuable to firms because they produce more than other workers.  Thus, in order to maximize profitability, firms should augment the standard MPL = W equation, replacing it instead with MPL + G = W + C, where G is the return to the firm from training and C is the opportunity cost and outlays from the worker in order to become trained.

            While Becker’s contribution to human capital opened the door to better understanding some of the factors underlying disparate wages that workers in the real world experience, it seems to fall short in its focus on adulthood as the primary time when human capital is developed.  Evidence shows that by the time individuals reach adulthood and are able to take personal responsibility for their choices, human capital may be largely immovable.  In 2012, Paul Tough published the book How Children Succeed which reviewed a wide array of research on the development of skills in young children.  One finding he illustrated was the extent to which traumatic experiences in early childhood can have long-lasting impacts on brain chemistry.  Specifically, the book cited a study by McGill University Neuroscientist, Michael Meaney, which monitored rat pups and showed that parental responsiveness to trauma, or lack thereof, altered brain chemistry (Tough 2012).  Similarly, children who are raised in stressful environments, and are not appropriately attended to by parents, have higher levels of cortisol which significantly inhibits their capacity to focus, a skill essential for developing human capital. 

While firms may be able to maximize productivity by investing in human capital at levels consistent with Becker’s calculations, the larger question seems to be whether or not society is properly endowing future generations with the basic set of skills they need to develop more complex human capital once they reach the workplace.  If outcomes are largely predetermined by the environment in which children are raised, human capital is no longer a rational choice within their control, and even if Clark’s MPL = W equation can be saved, it could scarcely be considered equitable.  

Conclusion

Over an illustrious career, Gary Becker contributed to a wide variety of topics often expanding the borders of what would have previously been considered appropriate work for an economist.  Some of his most influential publications applied the economic principle of rational individual choice to topics previously dominated by sociologists and psychologists.  A missionary for the economic faith, Becker colonized the fields of discrimination, crime, and family choice, converting many to the belief that behavior is primarily motivated by a rational weighing of costs and benefits.  While the jury is still out on this theory’s validity, the social sciences have certainly become infatuated with the concept, and hundreds of economists have migrated to the academic colonies founded by Becker.  Time will tell whether they have settled in Jamestown or Plymouth.

 

References

  1. Becker, Gary S. and Barro, Robert J. “Altruism and the Economic Theory of Fertility.” Population and Development Review, 1986, 12(Supplement), pp. 69-76.
  2. Becker, Gary S. “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” Journal of Political Economy, 1968, 76(2), pp. 169-217.
  3. Becker, Gary S. The Economics of Discrimination. University of Chicago Press, 1957.
  4. Becker, Gary S. “Investment in Human Capital: A Theoretical Analysis.” Journal of Political Economy, 1962, 70(5), pp. 9-49.
  5. Becker, Gary S. Editor Tore Frängsmyr. Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1992. Stockholm, 1993.
  6. Becker, Gary S. “Nobel Lecture: The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior.” Journal of Political Economy, 1993, 101(3), pp. 385-409.
  7. Becker, Gary S. A Treatise on the Family. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  8. Levitt, Steven D. and Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. “An Economic Analysis of A Drug Selling Gang’s Finances.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2000, pp. 755-789.
  9. Kruse, Kevin M. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press, 2005.
  10. Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hiden Power of Character. Mariner Books, 2012.


[1] United States Census, 1930.  As retrieved from SocialExplorer.com on April 10, 2014.

25

Apr

Bending the Curve: Why CCRPI Misleads Educators and Parents

More than a year after students placed their pencils on the desk and closed their 2013 CRCT exam booklets, the Georgia Department of Education released its College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), which is intended to inform schools how they fare relative to others in the state.

While the measure is certainly an improvement on the rudimentary Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark developed under No Child Left Behind, it can hardly be called a success.  It continues to miss the most important element of effective evaluations: expected performance.

Few would be shocked to learn that students who live in wealthy neighborhoods and have educated parents on average score higher on the CRCT than students who live in poor neighborhoods and have uneducated parents.  Yet, the majority of CCRPI points are awarded with no consideration of expected achievement.  Therefore, the measure is intrinsically biased.

This is problematic on both ends of the spectrum.  Schools with low-poverty populations are uniformly receiving high scores while schools with high-poverty populations are consistently receiving low scores.  Both are missing out on useful feedback.  If the intention of the measure is to let school and district leaders know where they stand, achievement should be measured relative to peer schools. 

In the interactive graph below, I have taken the CCRPI scores of all elementary and middle schools in the state and plotted them against a percentile rank for free-and-reduced lunch population (FRL Percentile).  By clicking the “type” and “district” options on the left, users can highlight the performance of specific districts and also see how local and state charter schools perform. The top 20 districts (by size) are listed first, then the remainder are listed alphabetically.  Users can also hover over the circles to see info about the school.

The trend line represents the score one would expect a school to achieve based on its FRL population.  Schools above the line are overachievers while those below the line are underachievers.

(additional comments below the graph) 

The majority of districts in the state look a lot like Fulton County.  They are average performers, and most of their schools are relatively close to the line, with some above and some below.  In the schools with low poverty, CCRPI scores are high while the districts achieve low scores at their schools with higher levels of poverty.  In the metro area, Atlanta Public Schools, Cobb County, Forsyth County, Decatur City, and Henry County all fall in this category.  Fulton results are highlighted below.

Fulton

One district in the metro stands heads and tails above the rest, and that district is Gwinnett County.  As shown in the graph below, virtually all schools in the county outperform what would be expected based on their FRL rates.  Even at Corley Elementary School where 95% of students are low-income and almost all are Hispanic/Black achievement is stellar.  Gwinnett County is “bending the curve,” a strong signal that something operationally is working right.  We should be learning from the district and highlighting their success, but because the data distributed by the state fails to adequately account for expected performance, that message is lost in the headlines.

Gwinnett

Two districts in the metro are solidly underachievers.  Both Dekalb County and Cherokee county see most of their schools fall below the line.  Again, this message is muddled in the CCRPI releases.  Dekalb is recognized as a low achiever because it has high poverty, but Cherokee is thought to do fine.  It’s only when one benchmarks the county’s schools to others with similar FRL rates that the message becomes clear: Cherokee has some serious work to do.

Cherokee

In order to provide meaningful information to districts, principals, and parents, it is time for the state to again adjust its CCRPI measure, adequately accounting for expected performance given observable characteristics of the student population served.  Without these adjustments, the measure will continue to mislead the public, fail to highlight meaningful success stories, and miss out on the improvement that could be achieved by giving school leaders realistic feedback.

25

Jun

CRCT 2013 - APS Math Scores Rise

This morning, the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) issued its first release of CRCT data from the 2013 testing cycle.  The data released today includes system-level scores, and the DOE states that school-level information will be made available on or before July 10.

According to a press release accompanying the data, scores were up across the state in most grades and content areas.

Since the difficulty of exams can vary year-to-year, I am typically less interested in the raw scores and more interested in how districts perform relative to each other.  My initial review of the data has some positive news for APS: scores for the system’s students rose relative to the rest of the state across all grades.  The greatest gains came in math, while english language arts (ELA) scores declined slightly.

Before jumping into the numbers, it is important to remember that averages give us a general sense of the direction districts are moving.  The don’t tell us much about the experiences of specific students or the performance of specific schools.  APS has historically had some schools ranked in the top 1% and others in the bottom 1%, a pattern which is likely to repeat when school-level information is released in the coming weeks.    

Lets start by looking at last year’s performance so that we have a good benchmark to compare to.  As shown in the chart below, APS students in Grades 3-8 ranked in the 19th percentile statewide last year.  This means that 19% of the state’s students attended school districts which scored lower than APS last year.  The remaining 81% of students in the state attended districts with average scores equal to or higher than APS.

2012 APS Percentile CRCT Scores

This year, APS saw modest gains across all grades, rising to the 23rd percentile.  While this performance is still well below average, the district is moving in a positive direction.  

Looking at some of the subject-level information, it is evident that the district’s most significant improvements came in Math, while ELA performance fell slightly, and other subjects rose slightly or remained flat.  

The percentile scores for each subject for the years 2012 and 2013 are included in the charts below.

2012:

2013:

20

May

Meeting With Supt. Erroll Davis

Last Wednesday, APS Superintendent Erroll Davis met with about 30 community members from around the city to discuss the FY2014 budget.

I thought that Davis did a good job of responding to the questions that were asked, and I appreciate him taking the time to sit down with community members.

A couple of the impressions that I left with were:

  • Davis feels that the district faces a lot of administrative challenges which take money to address, and he feels it is more important to direct money toward those initiatives than to keep class size low.
  • From Davis’s perspective, the central office and administrative spending are reasonable (or even favorable) compared to other urban districts.
  • From Davis’s perspective, a primary driver of administrative inefficiencies is having under-enrolled schools. 
  • There is a disconnect between the information the administration is relying on to make decisions (from the computer systems) and the practical experiences of those closer to the schools.
  • From Davis’s perspective, a slow pace of change/improvement is to be expected from a large organization, and he feels like they are moving in the right direction slowly.

I continue to think there are several ways that I see things differently from Supt. Davis, and I don’t think he is closer to coming around to my point of view or that information has been presented which would help bring me around to his point of view.  The things I continue to think are:

  • Even setting aside assistant principal classification, under-enrolled schools, and the pension liability issues which have been mentioned, the district spends significantly more money on the central office than other districts in the state, whether those districts have higher-needs students or lower-needs students.
  • Some of this is driven by inefficiencies in the hierarchy of the central administration.  A couple of examples include:
  • Karen Waldon’s department has its own budget team rather than relying on the finance department.
  • The reorganization of the curriculum and instruction department added lots of new positions.  Under Karen, there are 4 associate superintendents, 4 executive directors, and 4 coordinators, all of whom are highly compensated.  Yet, what I’ve heard from the experience of principals is that they feel C&I has become less responsive during Karen’s time at the helm.  I have heard reaching out to C&I described as sending messages into a black hole.  While this is certainly not reflective of all principal’s take, I have heard it now from multiple people in four different clusters.
  • The 4 leaders of the reform districts are highly paid (and most say they’re talented people), but they are not vested with authority, and therefore they do not contribute meaningfully.
  • While I agree that large organizations are hard to change, we can’t be resigned to slow improvements.  We may need to look closer at the possibility of moving faster to a decentralized model where clusters or quadrants of the city are responsible for decision making, and change can be implemented at a faster pace.
  • Even in the depths of a recession, we have significantly more money per student than other Georgia districts ever have in a booming economy.  It is challenging for me to reconcile that with a need for class sizes of 33.  It seems to me that if we were more strategic with our use of money and planned better, we could have smaller classes and still have funds left over to fund investments in the administration which Davis sees as needed.
  • The data Davis relies on to understand the finances of the organization is compiled with a lot of assumptions, which it seems to me make the numbers reflect something different than he (or any other user) would initially assume based on the summary descriptions of the expenses.
  • We have to plan holistically.  It is perfectly appropriate for certain funds to have restricted uses, but that shouldn’t be used as a reason for us not to plan ahead for how we will use those funds.  I’m not aware of any regulations which would prevent planning the use of Title I funds or other special funds.  I also don’t think the fact that discretion is provided to the principals should prevent this process from taking place.  The principals should be asked to work with the administration to put together a plan for next year as part of the budget cycle.

13

May

Learn about the Atlanta Public Schools budget!

28

Jan

An Afterward to White Flight: Atlanta’s Return to Community & Long Road Toward Integration

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, public spaces including busses, parks, pools, and schools once prized by Atlantans came to be regarded with distrust and fear after ten years of “forced integration.”  Rather than integrate, many whites chose to withdraw from public life and ultimately from the city altogether.  

Between 1960 and 1990, Atlanta’s white population fell from over 300,000 to just 122,000 residents concentrated primarily on the north side of the city.  Stung by the perceived betrayal of their communities and elected officials, those leaving Atlanta set out to build a new lifestyle in the suburbs, one constructed on an ethos of individuality and self-sufficiency.  Public transit gave way to the car and grid neighborhoods gave way to gated communities.

At the same time, thanks in no small part to its role in the civil rights movement and renowned cluster of Historically Black Colleges, Atlanta became known throughout the nation as Harlem’s counterpart, a Black Mecca of the South.  Between 1960 and 1980, Atlanta attracted upwardly mobile blacks from around the country, watching its black population swell from 186,000 to 283,000. 

In his acclaimed account of this period in the city’s history, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Princeton University Professor Kevin M. Kruse chronicles the events leading to white flight and explores their cultural and political repercussions, painting a disturbingly vivid picture of 20th-century withdrawal from the city once “too busy to hate.”

As with any living history, Atlanta’s has continued beyond the scope of Mr. Kruse’s research, which left off in the 1970’s.  Over the past 20 years, Atlanta has seen the emergence of a new class of white professionals who initially chose to live in the city during their 20’s and are now also opting to raise families within the city limits.  Meanwhile, the suburbs have seen an influx of middle-class blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, making the once lily-white metro area home to one of the nation’s most integrated counties: Gwinnett. 

In important ways, these demographic shifts reflect not only geographical movements but also an evolving system of values as many of Atlanta’s professionals and elites choose an “intown” lifestyle and suburbanites opt for integration over ethnic isolation.

However, Easy Street would be an unlikely name for the road from the 1970’s to today’s Atlanta.  For a time, the city’s future looked bleak.

Crack, Lead, and Homicide

Following decades of slow and hard-fought progress, the Black Atlanta community, and more broadly Black America, was rocked in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by an alarming rise in violent crime and homicide.  The U.S. murder rate among young black males aged 14 - 17 doubled from 1984 to 1994.  The murder rate for black males aged 18 - 24 spiked 30%. 

Fortunately, the crime wave was short lived.  By the mid 1990’s violent crime began a long decline which has now brought it near record lows in Atlanta and cities throughout the country. 

Scholars disagree on the factors responsible for the 1980s crime surge, but compelling cases have been made for blaming two substances: lead & crack cocaine.

In his 2000 article published by Environmental Research, economist Rick Nevin claims that 90% of the variation in America’s violent crime over the past fifty years can be explained by childhood exposure to lead (once common in gasoline and paint).  With blacks more likely to live in dense neighborhoods closest to interstates and central business districts, gasoline-based lead exposure may explain a significant portion of the crime-wave experienced in the black community.

Another commonly-cited culprit is crack cocaine.  In the world of recreational drugs, the development of crack cocaine was a technological breakthrough of sorts, democratizing cocaine consumption by enabling dealers to sell small, $10 “rocks” which delivered an intense, short-lived high.  Strong demand for the drug and ensuing turf wars over the right to meet that demand are cited as potential causes of the crime wave.

According to research by Harvard economist Royland G. Fryer, Jr., Atlanta (along with Newark and San Francisco) was one of the three U.S. cities most dramatically affected by the crack epidemic.  

The impact of crack and/or lead exposure on Atlanta’s residents can best be seen through a review of historical crime rates.  In 1985, just prior to the crack outburst, Atlanta’s murder rate stood at 37 people per 100,000.  It peaked in 1990 at almost double that rate—65 people per 100,000.  By 2011, the rate fell to 20, approximately 70% below peak levels.

Unsurprisingly, many of the children (mostly black) raised in Atlanta during this period of upheaval became disillusioned with city life, and when it came time to establish their own families, they began to look beyond the city’s borders.

Suburban Integration

The city’s black population peaked in the 1980s, and since that time a stream of middle-class black residents have left the city, seeking the suburban promises of safety and high-quality schools.  Though the movement began 20 years earlier, this trend continued into the 2000’s.  As measured by children under five, relocation of the region’s youngest black families in the past decade shows a continued preference for the suburbs.

Map 1

At rates of 68% and 108%, respectively, North Fulton and Gwinnett registered the highest growth of black children under five. At the same time, Atlanta saw its population of black children shrink by 19%.

Professor Kruse’s research in White Flight thoroughly illustrates how black Atlantans’ initial efforts at integration were met with swift white withdrawal, street by street in the 1950’s.  Atlanta may not have gotten integration right on the first attempt, but the latest black migrants, particularly those choosing Gwinnett, have encountered a different response: many of the whites stuck around.  Meanwhile, significant Asian and Hispanic communities have migrated to the metro area.

Thanks no doubt to the attraction of its lauded school system, Gwinnett County can proudly boast an integration index of 0.59, one of the highest levels for any county throughout the entire nation.  The integration index reflects the probability that two residents of the same census tract, selected at random, will be of different races.  When two Gwinnett residents of the same census tract are selected, there is a 59% chance that the second resident will be of a different race than the first.

Many U.S. counties have diversity rivaling Gwinnett, but often that county-level diversity is built on a collection of more segregated communities.  For example, Kings County (i.e. Brooklyn, New York) is extremely diverse with no race making up more than 44% of the population; however, Brooklyn is not as integrated as Gwinnett.   Instead, many central Brooklyn neighborhoods (e.g. East Flatbush, Bedford-Stuyvesant) are overwhelmingly black while neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Park Slope are overwhelmingly white.  Kings County’s integration index stands at 0.42.

When compared to other Sun Belt metro areas, Gwinnett’s integration index stands tallest.  Metro Charlotte’s most integrated county is Mecklenburg (0.46), metro Dallas’s most integrated county is Dallas County (0.53), and metro Houston’s most integrated county is Fort Bend (0.56).

As some Black families have chosen to settle in the suburbs, many white families are now taking a second look at life inside the city, bringing increased diversity to several intown neighborhoods once exclusively black.

Reversal of White Flight

With the proliferation of European study-abroad programs, increasing travel, liberalizing social norms, and a slew of cultural touchstones (American Beauty, Desperate Housewives, Weeds) which poke fun at the perceived uniformity/emptiness of suburban life, white college graduates have flocked to American cities.  In most large cities, downtown areas saw double-digit population growth rates from 2000 to 2010.  But in much of the country, the peak of urban life occurs sometime around age 27 with couples then heading to the suburbs to raise families. 

While other cities contemplate whether the most recent influx of young professionals will tread this familiar path, Atlanta already has its answer, evidence of which is best reflected in the city’s white baby boom.  As metro counties regi­­stered slight declines in the number of white children under five (partly driven by falling birth rates during the Great Recession), Atlanta and intown Dekalb have undergone a period of exponential growth.

image

Over the past 10 years, the number of white children under five living in Atlanta grew by an astounding 51%.  A cluster of four southeast Atlanta neighborhoods (East Atlanta, East Lake, Edgewood, and Kirkwood) has been most dramatically impacted.  In 2000, these neighborhoods were home to a combined total of just 94 white children.  By 2010, that number had grown by over 500% to 592. 

Providing evidence that those now choosing to raise families in the city do so by choice, the white families settling in Atlanta are disproportionately affluent.  More than 16% of Atlanta’s white households earn at least $200,000, nearly twice the rate of the metro-area’s white households.

Should a return to raising families in the city eventually gain traction around the nation, Atlanta will find itself at the forefront of the movement.  Fellow Sun Belt cities – Charlotte, Dallas, and Houston – have all seen young professionals move into new, high-rise condos in the city core.  However, none of these cities have seen this renewed urban interest transition to family life on a scale similar to Atlanta.  Instead, white families in these cities continue to show a greater preference for settling further from the city core.

While it is true that some of the city’s blacks have relocated to the suburbs and demographic data make the story of Atlanta’s intown rebirth easiest to demonstrate by changes in the white population, the movement should not be misunderstood as exclusively white.  Many of the whites now settling intown claim diversity as a paramount value, and they have certainly been joined by Hispanic, Asian, black, and multiracial families. 

Atlanta is also now home to several minority entrepreneurs whose ventures reflect intown values, even if a lack of hair pulling means the lives of these successful businesswomen are unlikely to be featured on Bravo or TLC.  Prominent examples include Marché Sparks (Le Petit Marché), Asha Gomez (Cardamom Hill) and Alison Cross (Boxcar Grocer).

A Return to Community

If Atlanta’s white flight, as suggested by Kruse, reflected disillusionment with local government and a withdrawal from public space, the City’s intown revival in many ways reflects a return to community.  This shift is evidenced by evolving attitudes towards transit and growing public engagement.  

The largest public works project currently being undertaken in metro Atlanta is the Beltline, a 22-mile loop of trails, parks and trains encircling the city’s core and connecting to the existing MARTA rail network.  Last fall, the Beltline’s Eastside Trail delivery was met with immediate, enthusiastic adoption.  On weekends, visitors to the trail will find hundreds of neighbors jogging, walking their dogs, or biking with their children. 

An effort last year to speed implementation of the Beltline (and a multitude of other transportation projects) through a one-percent sales tax failed as the metro’s suburban voters voiced their continuing opposition to public transit and a distrust of government.  The vote provided a stark snapshot of the cultural gulf that has developed between suburban and intown values.  Virtually all suburban precincts voted strongly against the measure, but the tax won overwhelming, broad support from the city of Atlanta’s gentrified neighborhoods.  No neighborhood was more supportive than intown standard-bearer Inman Park, where 83% of voters approved the tax.

In addition to a willingness to invest in public projects, intown residents have become increasingly engaged in a dialogue around what direction their neighborhoods should take, showing a sense of community ownership and demanding developments consistent with neighborhood values. 

In 2012, developer Jeff Fuqua proposed two suburban-style shopping projects which both featured large surface parking lots and big-box retail in excess of 100,000 square feet. 

The first proposal was located near the Lindburg MARTA station, but Fuqua refused to incorporate the Neighborhood Planning Unit’s request that his team rework the project to be consistent with the area’s transit-oriented development plan.  When the developer didn’t budge, NPU-B chair Sally Silver initiated an extensive email and phone campaign whereby residents ultimately convinced city council members to block the project.

Fuqua’s second proposal was located in Grant Park, directly adjacent to the Beltline.  Ignoring the Beltline’s already-adopted guidelines for the parcel’s development as a mixed-use grid, Fuqua again proposed a big-box development with a large surface parking lot.  In response, hundreds of neighbors signed a petition against the proposal and held a protest at the site.  It remains to be seen whether city officials will uphold the neighborhood’s wishes and require a project in keeping with the Beltline’s master plan. 

While anti-urbanist projects have been met with vocal opposition, intown communities have enthusiastically supported projects that share neighborhood values.  Jamestown Properties’ Ponce City Market has drummed up growing buzz through site tours and parties at the former Sears building currently being redeveloped into a collection of offices, apartments, restaurants, and retail.

Beyond development and transit projects, intown families have also sparked innovation and renewed interest in one of the city’s most essential services: public education.

Turnaround in Public Education

It turns out the oft-repeated notion that prison planners use third grade test scores to determine how many prisons need to be built is an urban myth; however, the connection between subpar education and crime has been demonstrated thoroughly.

Unfortunately, Atlanta has a long history of falling short on K-12 education.  As recently as 2004, only 15% of the four-year-olds who stepped into an Atlanta Public Schools kindergarten classroom entered a high-quality school.  These kindergarteners have now entered 7th grade, and many continue to struggle with the challenges presented by starting their education on the wrong foot.

Since the time those children enrolled in kindergarten, the city has seen a remarkable community investment in struggling traditional public schools (e.g. Toomer Elementary), growth in the number of charter schools, and an improvement of existing charter schools’ quality.  As a result, 33% of kindergarteners entering Atlanta Public Schools for the 2012 year began their education in a high-quality school, a significant improvement in just 8 years.

Looking forward two years, that number is likely to reach 45% as one of the city’s most successful charter networks (KIPP) adds two more primary programs and at least two traditional schools on upward trajectories (Burgess-Peterson & Parkside) jump the hurdle from slightly below the state average performance to above.

It will take several years for these developments at the elementary level to trickle through to higher graduation rates, higher test scores, lower teenage pregnancy, and lower crime, but those are the outcomes Atlanta can expect.  Once this future is realized, a great deal of the credit should go to charter leaders like David Jernigan and the intown communities who have taken ownership of their schools.  

Atlanta’s Path Forward

Reflection on the road Atlanta has traveled, the progress our region has made toward integration, and trends currently underway offers Atlanta’s leaders food for thought as they consider the path our city takes over the next 30 years.

For Mayor Reed and the City Council: Recognizing that a distaste for short-sighted suburban development is one of the factors contributing to a renewed interest in intown life, how can the city ensure that neighbors are equipped with the tools to hold developers responsible for building projects appropriate for their communities long term? How can the city address its infrastructure backlog and speed implementation of popular projects like the Beltline?  

For Superintendent Davis and the Atlanta Board of Education: How can the Atlanta Public Schools leverage the influx of civically minded residents to move more Atlanta schools from subpar to great?  How can Atlanta articulate a vision for its charters, building on the successes of programs like KIPP and extending a high-quality education to 100% of the city’s children? 

As we look back on our city 30 years from now, we will undoubtedly have moved forward.  The nature and extent of that progress is up to us.

11

Dec

Charter Founder Profits; Students Struggle

From its headquarters one block south of Wall Street, Mosaica Education claims to operate with a simple mission: “To empower students to learn and achieve – every child, every day.”

Gene EidelmanThis for-profit charter management company was founded in 1997 by Sandy Springs resident Gene Eidelman and has since expanded to a network of 90 schools, generating more than $125M in annual revenue.  For several years, Inc. Magazine has ranked Mosaica as one of the fastest growing companies in urban America.[i] 

Unfortunately, students attending schools managed by Mosaica have not seen their educational trajectories rise with the management company’s revenue.  Instead, Mosaica’s students around the country consistently underperform their peers.

Mirroring the organization’s national record, Mosiaca’s local charter school, Atlanta Preparatory Academy (APA), is one of Georgia’s worst performing schools on annual exams, with students in all grades scoring in the bottom 20% statewide. 

The school is currently up for charter renewal and has requested that the Atlanta Board of Education grant it a five-year charter extension.

During the December 2012 school board meeting, Mr. Allen Mueller, Executive Director of Innovation for Atlanta Public Schools (APS), recommended that the Board of Education decline to renew APA’s charter, citing low academic achievement and concerns about the school’s financial independence from Mosaica.  District 1 Board of Education representative, Ms. Brenda Muhammad, quickly rebuffed this recommendation and advocated extending the school’s charter for an additional five years.  The Board ultimately voted to delay any decisions until its January 2013 meeting.

A review of Mosaica and APA’s history, academic performance, and financial management raises serious questions about the prudence of granting the charter school an extension.

A Brief History of Scandal

During Mosaica’s short tenure on the national stage, it has found itself immersed in a series of scandals across the country. 

The Lafayette Academy Charter School opened in the fall of 2006, paying Mosaica $773,000 for the first year of a five-year management contract.  Less than 10 days into the school year, the charter’s governing board started “noticing problems.”  In a lawsuit filed against Mosaica, the governing board alleged that the management company failed to align its curriculum to Louisiana standards, failed to establish an after-school program for struggling students, and failed to properly organize transportation to and from the school.  On September 14, 2007, an arbitrator awarded the governing board a $350,000 judgment against Mosaica and upheld the school’s termination of its management agreement.

Two years later, Mosaica’s Howard Road Academy in D.C. was embroiled in a cheating scandal when a student announced to her exam proctor that she knew all the answers to the DC-CAS standardized test because she had been given the test to practice the day before.  The Washington Post later reported that Mosaica administrators distributed tests prior to exam day for “extra practice.”    

In April 2012, Mosaica’s STEAM Academy of Winston-Salem, North Carolina faced revocation of its charter for financial problems and low academic performance.  Just before annual exams were to be administered, The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Mosaica hired Susan Willis to run the school.  Prior to landing this job, Ms. Willis was fired by her previous employer when an investigation found that she conspired to boost test scores as the principal of William Flemming High School in Roanoke, Virginia.  Mosaica claimed to be “aware of a testing irregularity,” when hiring Ms. Willis, but “didn’t think it was anything significant.”

Last month, four of Mosaica’s Atlanta students were injured when a classmate mixed dry ice, vinegar and water together in a bottle.  One student was burned.  Another was hit in the head with the exploding bottle, and another got chemicals on his face.  The injuries occurred when a substitute teacher “wasn’t looking.”

Just last week, the Detroit News reported that Mosaica’s newest school in Muskegon Heights, Michigan has struggled to maintain a stable staff during its first year of operations.  The principal quit before classes started, and just three months into the school year, 25% of the teachers have also left the school.  A student described his experience as follows: “It’s confusing because I go from this learning process to this learning process to that learning process and it’s just ridiculous how some teachers leave and we have to start all over and learn something new…It’s just, it’s crazy.” 

The Mosaica Growth Model

The nation’s most admired charter networks (e.g. KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, Success Academies, etc.) have all followed a familiar pattern of expansion.  First, they started with a single school in a single city, worked to perfect that school, and then replicated the successful model.  As they expand, the networks strive to ensure their new schools consistently implement the approaches which proved successful in their flagship location.

Unlike these organizations, high standards do not seem to be a priority at Mosaica.  Perhaps the thing most consistent about Mosaica’s schools is their failure.

A comprehensive analysis conducted by Arizona State University lists the first 36 schools founded by Mosaica since it began operating in 1997.  Twenty seven of those schools have since been shut down by local authorizers or have extricated themselves from Mosaica’s management.

Of the nine which survived, eight can be classified as categorical failures.  They have consistently scraped along the bottom of the barrel in their states as measured by performance on annual exams.  Here are those schools’ most recent statewide percentile rankings on exams as compiled by SchoolDigger:

  • Arts and Technology Academy of Pontiac (MI) – 10th Percentile
  • Bay County Public School Academy (MI) – 15th Percentile
  • Columbus Arts & Technology Academy (OH) – 11th Percentile
  • Columbus Humanities Arts and Technology Academy (OH) – 8th Percentile
  • Grand Blanc Academy (MI) – 16th Percentile
  • Howard Road Academy (DC) – 14th Percentile
  • Phoenix Advantage Charter School (AZ) – 34th Percentile

The only possible beacon of success among Mosaica’s first 36 education attempts is the Columbus Preparatory Academy.  Founded in 2004, until recently, the school has struggled, its test scores falling in the 6th percentile in 2008.  After the Columbus Dispatch ran a story including the school on a list of charters facing closure, the Columbus Preparatory Academy saw its performance undergo a meteoric rise to the 81st percentile on the state’s 2011 tests. 

Even if this single-year increase is an accurate reflection of lasting student growth at Columbus Prepartory Academy, Mosaica has demonstrated no capacity to duplicate the success elsewhere.  Instead, the organization seems willing to accept a certain level of school closures, focusing instead on a strategy of opening new schools.  During the time the network watched 27 of its first 36 schools close, it was able to open more than 75 new schools.  As long as Mosaica opens more schools than it sees closed each year, its revenue can continue to grow.

By the time local or state authorities step in to shut schools down, Mosaica has already earned several years of profits and can move on to the next opportunity.

Founding of Atlanta Preparatory Academy

In December 2006, Mosaica’s President Gene Eidelman filed a charter petition to open the Atlanta Preparatory Academy (APA).  The charter application indicates that non-profit APA intended to contract with for-profit Mosaica to provide all services. 

Unlike Grant Park’s community-based Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, APA was not founded by a group of local parents seeking better options for their kids.  Instead, Gene Eidelman was joined by a team of three outsiders, none of whom live in the community where APA planned to operate its school and none of whom send children to the school.  The charter lists its inaugural board as follows:

  1. Gene Eidelman – President
  2. Neil Shorthouse
  3. Ann Davis Jones
  4. Falomi Prescott-Adams

The application acknowledged a conflict of interest as APA’s President was also the founder, owner, and President of Mosaica.

Undeterred by this conflict, the APS Board of Education approved the application, paving the way for APA to open in the fall of 2008.  The school was not prepared to receive students in 2008 and ultimately delayed its start to August 2009.

Since the Board of Education approved the school’s charter five years ago, APA has been a revolving door for board members who join then leave the organization.  Founders Ann Davis Jones and Falomi Prescott-Adams have both severed ties to APA.  According to filings with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, each of the past four years the school has had a different Chief Financial Officer (CFO).  None of the individuals who have served as CFO appear to have earned a degree in finance or accounting.

  • 2009 CFO Gene Eidelman did not graduate from college.
  • 2010 CFO Neil Shorthouse earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh.
  • 2011 CFO Colin Colvin’s background is unclear
  • 2012 CFO Dekisha Drayton is an MD who studied Biology as an undergraduate.

This instability and lack of financial experience stands in stark contrast to the consistent financial leadership seen at Atlanta’s successful charters.  One of the city’s most highly regarded charters is the Charles R. Drew Charter School.  Its CFO, Brian P. Williams, has served in that role for at least six years.  He also has a financial background and worked for 10 years as a CPA with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Academic Achievement

Much like Mosaica’s other schools, APA’s students rank among the bottom of the pack on Georgia exams.  For the 2012 CRCT, the school didn’t see students in any grade exceed the 20th percentile statewide.  In three of five grades, students ranked in the 10th percentile or lower.

Importantly, the school’s highest performing students are 7th graders who received their K-4 educations elsewhere, prior to APA opening.

 image

Only one APS-approved charter school has seen its students achieve at low levels similar to APA—The Intown Academy.  Each of the district’s other charter schools see students perform at much higher levels.  Below are the 2012 average percentiles for all grades served by Atlanta’s charter schools.

image

APA’s sub-par performance is even more disappointing when one considers that, with a low-income percentage of 61%, fewer of its students may face the challenges faced by students in most other APS charters.

In addition to raw performance, APS also tracks “value-added” metrics which measure year-over-year growth in CRCT scores on a student-by-student basis.  By this measure, APA’s elementary students only achieved 6.9 months of learning during a full school year while middle school students achieved 7.9 months of learning.  Both tallies are among the lowest in the district.

In every year since the charter began operating, APA failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress metrics established under the No Child Left Behind act.

In addition to the charter’s dismal academic achievement, a review of APA’s financial statements raises questions about whether the school has been a good steward of public resources. 

Instructional Outlays

The Management Agreement between APA and Mosaica calls for a fee of 12.5% of per-pupil revenue received by the school, which in 2012 amounted to $577,716.  It goes on to say that this fee “will not preclude the payment of additional consideration,” paving the way for Mosaica to charge more for any services not covered under the Management Agreement.

Only 36.2% of APA’s revenue for the year ended June 30, 2012 actually went toward instruction.  This was the lowest percentage of expenses allocated to instruction among all of Atlanta’s charter schools.[ii]  The percentages for other schools are presented below.

  • Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School – 82%
  • KIPP (Combined)[iii] – 75%
  • The Kindezi School – 62%
  • Charles R. Drew Charter School – 61%
  • Wesley International Academy – 52%
  • The Intown Academy – 48%

The school’s remaining $2.6M of public funds was spent in a variety of other ways.  Below are some of the broad categories and amounts reported in the school’s financials:

  • “Maintenance and Operation of Plant Services” - $850,623
  • “Management Fees” - $577,716[iv]
  • “Improvement of Instructional Services” - $376,781
  • “School Administration” - $268,947
  • “General Administration” - $165,539
  • “Support Services - Business” - $146,358
  • “Other Outlays” – $166,459

The lack of detail provided makes it difficult to determine the total amount paid to Mosaica.  For example, Mosaica may have provided what is classified as “Improvement of Instructional Services.”  If these services were determined to fall outside the management agreement, the $376,781 would have been paid to Mosaica on top of its $577,716 management fee.  The same goes for other expense categories.

Real Estate Purchase

As noted in its charter application, Gene Eidelman identified a potential site for the school prior to founding APA.  On July 18, 2008, APA purchased that site, a tract of land on Fairburn Road, just outside the 285 perimeter. 

The tax assessor’s office indicates that the land was purchased from Sterling Trust Company for $475,000.  Prior to this $475,000 transaction, the 3.12-acre parcel was last sold in 2000, when Sterling Trust Company acquired it for $82,779.[v]  

According to APA’s 2012 Audited Financial Statements, $200,000 of the purchase price was financed by the seller while the remaining amount was financed by a Denver-based financial firm, Tatonka Capital.  In addition, Tatonka provided $275,000 to cover “engineering, loan fees, legal fees, permit costs, and prorated items.”

Approximately one year after the purchase, Tatonka Capital assigned the financing note to Mosaica, and the management company has continued to collect interest from APA for the loan. APA’s 2012 Financial Statements indicate that this loan was secured by the property and accumulated interest at a variable rate which is currently 7.25%.[vi]  Annual interest on a $550,000 loan at 7.25% totals approximately $40,000.

No building was ever constructed at the site, and it has continued to sit vacant for the past four years. Estimated expenditures to date on the Fairburn property are included in the table below:

image

To date, APA has spent close to one million dollars of public money on a site which in no way contributed to education.

Lease Agreement

As loans financing the Fairburn property continue to accumulate interest, APA operates in a facility located at 569 Martin Luther King Junior Drive in west Atlanta.  The facility, known as Jordan Hall, was once part of the Morris Brown College campus.  In 2009, Morris Brown lost the facility to foreclosure in the wake of an embezzlement scandal that led to a loss of accreditation and long-lasting financial troubles for the college.

The purchaser of Jordan Hall, GTAS Properties LLC, paid $900,000 for the facility on March 3, 2009.  Less than three months later, APA entered an agreement to rent the facility.  According to APA’s 2012 Audited Financial Statements, the school paid $402,870 in rent for the year ended June 30, 2012.  This annual lease rate represents approximately 45% of the building’s most recent sales value.  The school enrolled 441 students during the 2011-2012 school year, resulting in a per pupil lease expense of $914.

It is not uncommon for charter schools operating in the APS system to lease facilities; however, many lease their facilities directly from the school system, which makes excess space available rent-free to locally approved charter schools.  The following APS charter schools have accepted these rent-free facilities.

  • Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School
  • KIPP Vision
  • KIPP Atlanta Collegiate
  • KIPP WAYS
  • The Kindezi School
  • The Intown Academy

The Charles R. Drew Charter School operates in facilities owned by the East Lake Foundation, and its financial statements do not indicate that any lease payments were made for the use of the facilities.  

In response to a request for information, the APS Department of Innovation, which oversees charter schools and their use of excess space in district buildings, indicated that buildings have been available each of the past five years including a recent opening at the Herndon facility near Jordan Hall; no one from APA has contacted the Department of Innovation to express interest in leasing free facilities.

Unresponsive Board

I have attempted to contact several past and present APA board members.  However, none have responded to my request for a meeting to discuss the school’s financial management, relationship with Mosaica, and academic performance. 

I have also called and emailed Board of Education representative Brenda Muhammad to inquire about her advocacy that APA be granted a renewal of its charter.  She has not responded.

Decision on Pending Charter Extension Application

During its January 2013 meeting, the Atlanta Board of Education will vote whether or not to approve APA’s application for charter renewal.  Under its current charter term, APA has delivered consistently subpar education to its students while squandering financial resources.  The school’s students and Atlanta’s taxpayers deserve better.  It is time for the Atlanta Board of Education to follow the lead of authorizers around the nation by turning off the citizen-funded cash spigot to Gene Eidelman and his Mosaica enterprise.


[ii] It is important to keep in mind that the financial statements prepared by charter schools are significantly less detailed than those prepared by districts such as the Atlanta Public Schools.  While districts, must lay out detailed accounts down to the number and type of employees in each department, charters are free to report more limited information.  As such, most charters report broad categories such as “instructional expense” which should include primarily teacher salaries, but may also include other expenses.  In addition expenses are not classified uniformly across charter schools, which may make some comparisons between schools unreliable.

[iii] Rather than listing “Instructional” expenses as a single line item, KIPP provides a detailed breakdown.  For this calculation the following expenses have been considered: “Payroll,” “Payroll Taxes and Benefits,” and “Direct Student Expenses.”

[iv] This amount is reported in Note 7 to the financial statements; however, it does not appear on the income statement, so it may comprise portions of some of the other items listed

[v] Sterling Trust Company is a financial services firm offering self-directed IRA’s.  Therefore, ownership of the Fairburn property was likely on behalf of one of its IRA clients.  The identity of the seller is unclear.

[vi] The contract stipulates prime plus 4.00%.  The Wall Street Journal prime rate is 3.25%.

18

Oct

mjbryan said: Where did you find the percentile scores for schools' CRCT results?

The scores by grade are published by the GA DOE here.  In order to calculate the percentile, I used the mean scores for each subject for grades 3 through 5.  For schools which did not serve all three grades, I used the mean for the grades served.