Ep. 403: Beyond the Test: Redefining Success in Education

March 4, 2024

In this edition of EdChoice Chats, Robert Enlow, CEO and President of EdChoice, talks with Lindsey Burke, from the Heritage Foundation, and Macke Raymond, from the Hoover Institution.

Robert Enlow: Hi, my name is Robert Enlow and I am with EdChoice here. And I am so blessed to be with Macke Raymond from not only the Hoover Institution, but also Stanford University. She runs the education research there. She’s amazing, as is Lindsey Burke who runs the Heritage Foundation Education part. She is the Skillman Fellow for Education.

Lindsey Burke: No, not even anymore. The Mark A. Kolokotrones Fellow own Jonathan Butcher is now the Will Skillman fellow.

Robert Enlow: So, that’s awesome. And we’re blessed because we’re here with two of the people who’ve been doing research into the idea of school choice and evidence around school choice for a long time. And in the new world of universal school choice, the question is out there of, how will we know? And we’ve actually had this question for years and years and years. I mean, everyone who’s been in the debates at the state houses like I have, like Lindsey has, I’m sure like Macke has, has had the same question. How do we know these kids are going to do any good in these crazy schools that you’re building? How do we know they’re going to do any good? What do we know? What’s the evidence and why do we have a level playing field?

And as the time has gone by, the idea of having everyone take the same test has gotten away from each other. There are lots of different ways to measure. And so, I guess the real purpose of this podcast is to actually explore a simple topic, how do we know, in a world of universal choice, that kids are doing well, the kids are learning? And what research do we need to do? So Macke, you have been doing a ton of the research on charter schools as well as everything. How do you know?

Macke Raymond: Well, for the last 20 years, the standard of performance that we’ve used is performance on standardized test scores that are mandated for public school students. As soon as you enter a world of choice, obviously that measure, that metric becomes optional. I would say, however, that there are lots of other indicators that are available in terms of knowing whether kids are moving along, whether they are actually in school, whether they’re out of school. Whether they are actually graduating and able to succeed in post-secondary life. And ultimately whether or not they can become productive citizens. So, I’m not completely tied to the idea of testing kids every single year. I would say that evidence in this new landscape is actually a critical infrastructure question. And it’s one that I don’t think that we’ve dealt with yet.

Robert Enlow: Lindsey, same question. What do we know? What do we know? What do we not know? What should we know?

Lindsey Burke: Well, we know that the strongest form of accountability is parents voting with their feet, happy parents, satisfied parents. And what we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that parents who are able to access education choice options are supremely that when given the opportunity, they are taking advantage of the sweeping choice options that we’re seeing across the country. We haven’t even mentioned yet that we now have 14 ESA programs across the country, nine of which are universal education choice programs. If you count Indiana, what is it, Robert? 97% of kids who are eligible, that’s about 10 states overall that now have something that approaches universal education choice.

We know that these programs are meeting the needs of families because families are opting into them. They are saying, “Our district school, it may work for some families, but it’s not working for my particular family. And so I’m going to leverage this new-found accountability that is available to me as a parent, and I’m actually going to choose a learning environment that is the right fit for my child.”

And so, I would say that the number one measure that we have to demonstrate that these programs are working, are actually leading to children who are prepared to inherit the blessings and liberties of a free society and the good life, is that their parents are happy. The kids are happy. They’re satisfied. And they’re selecting these options that just two years ago, weren’t available to the vast majority of them.

Robert Enlow: And I do include Indiana by the way, because if you include universal choice and you include West Virginia, that’s only 95% as opposed to Indiana, which is 97%. That’s my little stickler I always like to throw in there. There’s always been this tension between sort of parents know best, parents are satisfied, parents get it. And the needs of policymakers to say, “Well, gosh, that’s great, but that doesn’t tell me if they choose a terrible school.” And all these metrics that we’ve created over the years, I mean, look, this goes way back to Bill Bennett and Chester Finn who decided we needed a one size fits all type of testing and standardized system, and then passed on through the Florida and Texas experiments on accountability.

I guess my question is there a middle ground between parents know best, which I actually would buy into 100% obviously? And the idea that we need some metric to understand whether kids are learning. So, what do you think of that tension, Macke? What’s your view on that?

Macke Raymond: Well, so I have a heart answer and I have a head answer. My heart answer is aligned with, parents know best what their kids need. My head answer is actually grounded in available evidence about whether or not families are in fact making informed decisions. And when you look at what factors families think about when they choose, they’re not actually prioritizing whether or not the student is learning. The number one factor is safety. Okay, fine. We can think about safety as a value and we want that. That’s great.

For me, I think that there’s a burden of proof on the sponsoring or educating institution to be able to demonstrate that learning is occurring. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a testing obligation, but I do think that schools need to be able to step up and be transparent about what they’re offering kids in terms of their long-term preparation for post-secondary life. I think that that’s a balance that can be struck.

I can imagine a variety of ways where families are able to see what their children are going to get when they actually investigate a particular education option. What I don’t like is the idea that there are many, many education choices about which there is very little information. And so, parents are relying on unreliable sources of information in order to make their decisions. That concerns me a great deal.

Robert Enlow: That’s a great segue because, Lindsey, I want to ask you, so Milton Friedman, as you know, the sort of progenitor of our foundation, people forget, he’s like, “Oh, he’s all about vouchers. He’s the original voucher, universal voucher guy.” And that’s true, but Milton was a sort of, he used to say, “My vocation is that of a technical economist. My avocation is a lover of liberty.” And to love liberty, you need to have parents and customers empowered with choices, the ability to make choices. Two, you need to have an unencumbered supply. And three, you need good information in the marketplace. And so, what information in the education marketplace is missing so that parents can make better decisions? And the next question after that, are we measuring the right thing and what should we be measuring? But what information do you think is missing right now?

Lindsey Burke: So, this will be a virtuous cycle, right? As we see more and more choice across the country develop, as we get close to that 50% threshold of kids across the country who actually have access to choice, we’re going to see more and more products and options and evaluation tools in the marketplace that will provide parents with all of the information that they need. I always think it’s interesting because we typically don’t ask ourselves this question in other sectors of American society. We don’t say, “Well, once you have food support for families or housing support or any other public provision, how is there going to be good information? How are families going to choose and select?”

We certainly don’t ask ourselves that question about private pay options. When you go out to a restaurant, how are people going to know? We know because there are organic market-driven options that pop up where you get your sort of basic review online of a restaurant. And then you also get something like Yelp or you get the more sophisticated reviews of restaurants, the Zagats Guide, the Michelin Star guide. And so, you have this wide range where you’ve got sort of your average Joe critiquing a restaurant, providing information about whether the food was good, the service was good, all the way to the expert review that is out there by the seasoned food critic. This is something that we just expect, that exists because a market will produce information.

We’re going to see the same type of in-depth information from all sorts of different expert levels, when it comes to selecting schools and learning options. And we’re starting to get there. We’re seeing some of these providers pop up that are offering information about schools, about teachers. I mean, my favorite example of this remains one of the very first examples. Robert, you’ll remember when the ESA in Arizona launched in 2011. Day one, what did we see? Parents starting their own Facebook groups where they were sharing best practices about what tutors worked well for their children, what options they were able to provide in terms of physical therapy, could they pay for a therapeutic trike, et cetera, et cetera.

And so, that was day one of the ESA program where parents started popping up and sharing information. So we’re going to see more and more of this, as the market for education options matures, and as more and more families actually are able to exercise choice. So, I’m confident that any gaps that do exist will be filled quite quickly over the next couple of years.

Robert Enlow: I hope so too. And I believe so. We’re at 36% of the total school age population that are eligible, one in five in universal choice states are now eligible. So, it’s a big deal.

So Macke, let’s talk about those gaps. What information do you think we need to know and should we be knowing? I mean, those are interesting loaded questions, right? Because ultimately this comes down to policymakers saying, “We have to have some information because giving parents lots of public money.” Now we do have some review of food stamps, for example. If you get a food stamp, you can’t spend it on certain items and obviously their health codes and things like that. So, there’s some accountability.

One of the questions I want to get to at near the end of this is when I’m in policymaker meetings all the time, I say, “Look, parents of the new accountability testing is the old accountability.” And their response is, “Great. What should we be measuring? What does the new accountability look like?” And so, I think it’s incumbent upon us at some point to come up with what we mean by the new measures of accountability. So Macke, help me fill some of those gaps in your mind. What should we be measuring? And if so, why aren’t we?

Macke Raymond: Okay, so this is what I call brilliance on demand. I’m supposed to solve this in the next 30 seconds, right? I’ll give it a shot. So I think at the same time that the range of choices are evolving rapidly in terms of what is available for families to consider, there is also I think, a parallel evolution of what we think about in terms of appropriate demonstrations of impact of education on kids. And whether that’s knowledge or it’s capacity or whether it’s micro-credentialing or whatever, I do think that it is possible for schools to come up with and to eventually coalesce around new collections of demonstrations.

So when I think about the choice world that we are building for our communities, I think about a matrix of micro credentialing that basically says schools can choose pretty much whatever they want in terms of where they want to put their emphasis. But they have to be able to demonstrate at least X percent of the following possible demonstrations. And you end up with a micro-credential map that is very transparent. Employers, colleges, other training programs, the military would be able to see this particular kid has this topography in their micro-credentialing map. And that’s a universal that we can recognize and that we understand.

You may not have everything that we would hope, but we do know what it is that you do get. And that’s a very different approach to helping kids understand, this isn’t just sitting in a classroom every day, this is actually building your map and your map has lifelong consequences. So, I’m kind of intrigued by that whole idea that we can evolve into that.

Robert Enlow: I love that ’cause I think that as you look at our polling and you look at a bunch of other people’s polling, half a families are okay with a kid learning at home one day a week. 40% are okay with their kid learning at home two days a week. What does that do to the construction of education? And for me as a parent, and Lindsey, I can’t wait to hear yours and Macke’s comments, my kids are now grown and gone. And I have always looked at judging my kid’s education, very simple. How did I know they were going to be successful? They were good people that made good, kind decisions. They were able to get out of school, get into a higher institution of some kind or higher education. And they became tax paying members of society and the heck out of my house, generally in that order. Right?

Now, I appreciate their cultural values around that. But I guess my question back to you guys would be like, maybe when we’re thinking about measuring, if we think about the things we really should be measuring, for example, in Indiana, we’re doing this dashboard. And when I was asked about it, I said, “You should measure income levels from different schools, and what are the income rates?” So one of the things, Lindsey, can we measure? What are the things out there that might already be in the marketplace that we could look at to sort of see what parent demand is?

Lindsey Burke: Well, I love what you just said, Robert, about how you think about whether or not as a parent or as a school provider, either hat, you’ve achieved success with your own child. This is something that I think the way Jason Bedrick, former EdChoice, now at Heritage had put it, “Yes, we want good students, but fundamentally we want students who are good.” And I think that’s what a lot of parents are looking for right now when they are shopping around for schools is, to what extent does a given school sort of cultivate this character that I want to see in my child that will put them on a good path for the rest of their lives? That’s hard to measure. That’s a sort of intangible outcome that might be hard to capture on a dashboard. But parents know it, right? When they go to a given school, when they talk to teachers, when they talk to other students, the principals, the school leaders, they understand the types of values and culture that a given school is transmitting.

And so again, that’s hard to capture in a dashboard, but we can look at things of course, obviously like attainment relative to achievement. Pat Wolf has made this point for a long time, how far you go matters more than what you know. So we want to know that kids are actually completing high school and graduating. I think we should really consider measuring satisfaction on students’ parts once they leave school. There could be a way to incorporate that into, if not dashboards, at least some sort of longitudinal evaluation of given schools over time. Are students actually happy? Do they feel prepared? Do they feel that they’ve been able to either pursue college or enter the workforce in a way that they had hoped?

And look, I mean there are other areas too that we could think about. There’s growing and continued interest in things like the success sequence. Not that schools should be prescriptive about that, but can private schools in particular at least describe what success might look like for a student if they graduate high school, pursue a job and, or attend college and then get married? And then what does that sequence mean? For your average millennial graduate, it means that 97% don’t end up in poverty. So, there are a lot of things out there that go beyond just academic achievement outcomes that we could be assessing, particularly in the research community, not for a state or government necessarily, but as researchers.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, like volunteerism, civic duty, that kind of stuff. So Macke, let me ask you this question. And since you are the representative higher ed here, or you’re in a higher institution, can this be done without disconnecting radically the Carnegie Unit from high school to college? Because if you look right now what’s happening in the sort of conversations around college and students and what they know and what they don’t know and their behaviors, maybe the entire structure of the way we’ve done it has not worked through the Carnegie Units. And so in a world of choice, do you need the system as we have it, or do you see something different in 20 years?

Macke Raymond: So, I don’t think there’s anybody who’s coming to this gathering this week or in the broader sort of policy and research community who thinks that the system that we have now works. So the answer to that straight up is, no. And the Carnegie Unit actually is a small part of what’s not working. I think the system that we have now has actually been trained over many decades, to be completely resistant to change. The more we’ve tried to change it and failed, the more resistant the system has become. And we now have a completely intractable side of that equation, which is why this choice piece is so interesting and important. Because I do believe that that’s the level of leverage that finally going to get to change the base system that we have.

Having said that, I think mastery and demonstrations of what kids know and can do is always preferable to any kind of standardized test score. The challenge that we face here is that we don’t know how to do a lot of these mastery demonstrations. We don’t have systems that are well-formed and reliable to allow us to see how kids are moving towards mastery. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pursue it, but let’s just be clear that in addition to the actual supply side of this broadening choice world becoming a little messy as we grow, all of this sort of underlying infrastructure of evidence and research is also going to be messy while we grow.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, think about it this way as well. So we actually, I think, do have enough measurements to know if someone has learned point A or point B. We have no knowledge to figure out how they got to learning point A or point B, you know what I mean? So we know the perfection as it were, or the end result. We don’t know the process. And if you look at how mastery could work, and I say this all the time with people, my son took AP courses. Why couldn’t he go into high school and test out of English if he passed all the AP English in the first year? Why does he need to continue taking English? What if he’s proven mastery there, at some point? So, it changes the nature of how we deal with education.

All right, so as we look to the last question of, what does the education information landscape look like in the future, Lindsey, what do you think we should be working on? What do you want to be working on in terms of research and data collection?

Lindsey Burke: Well, I think the number one charge is to make sure that we actually allow this new, exciting, pluralistic choice-based world to develop in a way where there are the widest range of choices available to families so that we can actually meet all their needs. And what that requires is that as researchers, as people working on the ground, as policy experts, we don’t try to layer on to this growing choice system the same regulatory red tape that has burdened traditional district schools, and has not provided the type of accountability that parents really need. I think that’s going to be the number one task is, how do we ensure that this landscape of choice can actually blossom to the greatest extent possible while still getting the information to parents that they need and deserve to get?

Yeah, it’s going to be a big challenge. We’ve got to make sure we go more toward Arizona and Florida and away toward Louisiana. Which it sounds like good news on the Louisiana front that there’s some great state leaders there who are going to probably clean up some of the existing programs and red tape that’s hampering the state there. But I think that’s the number one task for everybody ahead of us, is to make sure that we actually allow these choice options to flourish. And that we don’t replicate the existing public school because that’s going to be, I fear, the impetus for a lot of people will be to ultimately try to replicate a lot of these bad practices that have hampered public education over the years.

And so, we’re going to have to be really careful, as we get to the point where there’s 50%, 60% of kids across the country in private choice options that we don’t, for instance, just say, “You’ve got to have the same type of teacher certification programs in place in your private schools. That accreditation is going to look like it does in the public sector.” So, there are all of these different levers that we have to make sure, because they have not been serving students and families well, we don’t import into private choice as it grows.

Robert Enlow: I think that is one of the biggest lessons that we should learn from our charter friends, is that exact lesson, of how we look at regulation and the acceptance of regulations. I really appreciate that. Macke, how about you?

Macke Raymond: Well, while I appreciate the idea that there is an untapped reserve of creativity and motivation to build new school models, I do worry about the fact that waiting 20 years to see, in fact if kids have worked out okay is a little bit of a scary thing for me. Based on the charter school research that we’ve done at CREDO, we know that initially, schools don’t all start out strong. And that in fact, without accountability, that it’s very clear and certain that lots and lots of kids can be put through unproductive and unhelpful programs.

My concern on the long, long run is, while it’s great to say we want to build a vibrant choice system, we have to make sure that we’re not ultimately creating additional societal burdens 25, 30 years from now where kids come out unable to navigate in the world. And they might be the nicest people in the world, and parents may be incredibly happy with the experience that their kids had. And those kids are still not prepared to manage their lives. I am very worried about what happens in that scenario. And I don’t think anybody at the front end is actually thinking about what the obligations are when you open up the gates for great diversification of school options, which I think is a good idea, that has to go hand in hand with a real sense of accountability. And what do you do to intervene in schools that are not preparing kids well?

Robert Enlow: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I mean, I do actually think we know what happens in 20 years if you have a system that doesn’t work. You’re seeing it right now. You’re seeing the fruits of a system of the last 50 to 75 years that is… Since I’ve been back in America, I think there’s been a million kids drop out every year, so that’s 1996 to today. I mean the fruits of that system, we know what’s happening. So, I appreciate the question.

Macke Raymond: But we don’t have any accountability for it. That’s the challenge. Right?

Robert Enlow: But the challenge with that, Macke, is that most of them are coming from traditional sectors where they say they have tons of accountability and where the government’s saying, “This is the kind of accountability we want on the non-public sector.” So, this is just balance. And then the question becomes, what is the role of the middleman? So Lindsey, you brought up Arizona and Florida. You could not come up with two very different models of control of the marketplace, as Florida who has a very strong middleman that requires certain things from families and certain things from schools in Arizona, which sort of lets a much more laissez-faire thing happen. Right? Matt Ladner will tell you that both those states are among the best performing NAEP states in the country states. And so it’s going to be an interesting few years, I can tell you.

Look, this discussion, I think growing desire to learn more about how we can show how kids are learning is I think, the next stage of educational choice. It’s moving from choice to understanding how the impacts of choice are.

Macke Raymond: Yeah. So let me just also finish with one other point, which is, I think Lindsey makes a good point that the focus of regulation and accountability has actually been on inputs and processes and not on outcomes. And so, the accountability that I think we’re talking about here in a larger pluralistic education system, isn’t about controlling the mechanisms of doing school. What we want to know is, how are kids at the end of that, how are they doing? And that’s the accountability that I’m talking about in terms of really being clear about what the outcomes are that schools and school options create, and be proud of that. I mean, this isn’t a gotcha scenario, be proud of what you’ve done, but be able to step up and demonstrate.

Lindsey Burke: On the charter side in Arizona, I mean this is something, Robert, you and folks, Matt Ladner name a second ago, where he has pointed out for years that charter schools in Arizona get what, a 10 or 20 year authorization. But most charters that close down, close down after four years. And so, parents hold them accountable before the state gets around to holding them accountable. So I think it’s just a really good example of how parents are smart, they know what’s working, they know what’s not working. And if something’s not meeting their needs, they will shut it down by voting with their feet.

Robert Enlow: Yeah, that’s certainly something Milton Friedman said, “Competition works.” And we’ll see. And I think what’s really interesting about this as we come to a close, is for years we have fought the demand side. We have fought for parents to have more options for whether it’s a charter school or a non-public school and now through an ESA. And I think the real struggle going ahead is, what kind of supply gets built and what kind of information gets assessed? And I think those two questions are the ones that are going to keep us awake at night. They keep me awake at night. I can tell you, if we have the same type of looking school system that we have now in 10 years, I think they’re going to be on the verge of failure in this moment.

And I’ll tell you why, because I love my non-public sector friends and I love my charter friends. But they don’t look a whole heck of a lot different for my public school friends in terms of the classroom day, the way the learning is done. There’s just very little true innovation going on for what I would call innovation. Not saying that there’s not, right? So, I think there’s a challenge there.

And then there’s certainly a challenge on what kind of information are we going to learn and how are these kids doing? And how are we going to know and know in enough time to say to a legislator, “Hey, trust us. We know this works.” Right? Because legislators don’t like to hear the words, “Trust us.” And they’ve heard that for a long time. So this is our challenge, and I know that the two of you, being the amazing people that you are and the great leaders you are, will help us accomplish that. So, last word to both of you guys. Lindsey, go ahead. Last word and what do you need? What we want to do on research?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. Look, I mean, I hope we see a robust market of evaluators jumping in, private sector companies popping into this market to provide parents with the data and information that they need. I think we will ultimately see that. We’re starting to see it on the periphery, and I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of it moving forward. This is something that we see again in every other sector of American life where we’ve got more information than anybody could ever hope for. The reason we haven’t had it in K-12 education is because we have a system that looks much more like a monopoly than a market. And now that that’s starting to break open and we’re having a system that slowly is starting to look more like a market than a monopoly, all of that robust information is going to follow. So, I’m excited to see that over the next decade.

Robert Enlow: I love that because people, like I say in Arizona, I can tell you where every single dollar goes at every single minute. Now, you may disagree with where the dollars go, you may not like that, but I can tell you where the dollars go in a way that you can never say that in a traditional sector. And that’s, I think, a positive thing. [inaudible 00:28:21] last word to Macke.

Macke Raymond: All right. Well, so I actually want to use my last word to advance a slightly different idea, which is that I do think that there’s a possibility that information and demonstrations actually become part of the parent side of the equation. We’re exploring the possibility right now whether parents are interested in finding out what their kids know independent of any kind of public accountability system. And so, are there private initiatives that can help parents be more informed about how their kids are doing? And whether that’s in the traditional district sector or in the new choice sector, I’m agnostic. But what I think is, if this system is to work, we actually have to give parents a lot more actionable information about how their kids are doing than they currently receive today. And so with that keystone in a new information infrastructure, I’m very confident that we could actually get this done in the next 10 or 15 years.

Robert Enlow: I love that, Macke. In fact, we’re starting a couple of projects here to find out exactly what parents think good schools are. We know that they want choice, I want to know what they actually think a good education is for their child. And that way we can help measure that stuff ’cause it’s always just made me laugh. Education is the one industry where we never ask the consumer what they think good is, right? We just presume we know what good is, right?

So, really appreciate your time. Thank you for joining the EdChoice podcast. Thank you, Macke, for all the work you do at CREDO. Thank you, Lindsey, for all the work you do at Heritage.

Please download this on our many platforms, and we appreciate you listening. Thanks very much.