Dispersion of Productivity and Charter Schools.

By Patrick L. Warren

Roland Fryer recently released a working paper summarizing the RCT evidence on educational interventions in the developed world. I learned a lot from reading it and commend it to your attention. In Bloomberg, Noah Smith provided a nice summary of the main points, check it out.  Here, rather than summarize a summary, I want to concentrate on the discussion of the effectiveness of charter schools and vouchers.

Noah says:

"What about charter schools and vouchers, the two main institutional reforms suggested by conservatives? The answer is that charters can work, especially if implemented in the right way, but that school vouchers basically don’t do anything. The latter result fits with other studies -- at this point, we can probably say with reasonable confidence that vouchers are not the best approach to improving the U.S. educational system.

Charters are a trickier proposition. The literature essentially shows that charters are not effective for the average student, but are often very effective for poor and minority students. Charters might therefore be an important targeted tool for helping poor minorities close the gap. Fryer also reports that certain policies, such as frequent teacher feedback, can improve the performance of charters -- and, probably, of other schools as well."

I like markets and generally trust in their power to deliver good products. So what's going on here? Why don't schools with good practices simply enter and push out those with bad ones? Here, I think we can draw a parallel to the work of Syverson and Syverson et al looking at the distribution of productivity across firms, both in general and in the (mostly non-profit) health sector, and the relatively weak degree to which the market disciplines low-productivity firms.

We know that some of the same drivers of productivity are at play in schools as in these other organizations, such as management practices. Should we be surprised that schools are no more disciplined by the market?