NAEP And A Julian Robertson Obituary Both Point To The Same Question: Could This Sector Be Any More Feckless?

On Thursday, just before the holiday weekend, 4th-grade NAEP scores came out. They’re not very good – and reflect the damage caused by some pandemic policies as well as a trend of declining scores that started in the early part of the last decade. State results will be released later this year. If they track with other data those results will further indicate that extended school closures were a bad policy choice.

Plenty is being said about the results, no point belaboring them here except to simply note there was a lot of fecklessness during the pandemic and this is the result. AFT President Randi Weingarten is an easy, and certainly legitimate, target given how she approached her role in 2020 and she’s been catching a lot of flack as a result. But laying this all on her, or the teachers unions, ignores just how widespread crazy ideas about school were. For all the criticism of Weingarten, her argument was more or less teachers-first until the politics changed and she became a reopener (although all her members still haven’t gotten that message). I don’t recall Weingarten ever saying that kids were learning so much more out of school this was all OK, or that school wasn’t that important, or sentiments in that vein. People in roles of responsibility were saying stuff like kids will learn more at a protest than in an extra month or two of school – and presenting this as though it was an inherent choice rather than, you know, you can do both. This was a broader problem of rampant virtue signaling, reflexive tribalism as well as private revealed preferences (a lot of the folks against reopening were making sure their kids were not just killing time and had the means to do so) rather than just focusing on the immediate problem at hand -educating kids at a disrupted time. Collectively, it visited a disaster on the kids who could least afford one.

The Biden Administration’s messaging on all this could use some work if Democrats harbor ambitions to reclaim the education issue. Acknowledging pandemic mistakes would go a long way toward rebuilding trust and confidence. The idea that Democrats saved the day here is ludicrous on its face and just annoys parents who are ready to look forward. Should be obvious, in case it’s not: “But the Republicans” is not a good message on education right now. Parents want options and support.

Instead, though, let’s stay on fecklessness for a moment. Julian Roberston, influential hedge fund investor and philanthropist passed recently in New York City. Inside Philanthropy took a look at his legacy:

…For that reason and several others — including his longtime support for the flagging charter school model and a record of GOP donations that undermined his climate giving — Robertson’s is a mixed philanthropic legacy.

They continue:

During the two decades that followed the Tiger Fund’s closure, philanthropic giving was another prime pursuit of Robertson’s sunset years. However, although his giving during that time was substantial and wide-ranging, there’s a case to be made that its impact leaves quite a bit to be desired.

For instance, take Robertson’s expansive charter school support, which represented a significant part of his education giving. On one hand, major donors like Robertson helped scale the charter movement into the local and national behemoth it eventually became. But as we’ve discussed before, the charter model itself has failed to truly scale the way its architects hoped it would, and now finds itself beleaguered amid a wide range of political, ethical and operational challenges. Most of the donors who’ve gone in big for charters, Robertson included, could certainly point to some successes here and there, but the model’s overall record remains mixed. Increasingly, we’re seeing even charters’ biggest philanthropic backers tempering their enthusiasm.

Take a look at that mixed and flagging record. Here is the most recent CREDO study on charter schools in New York City – where Robertson focused much of his philanthropic effort:


Overall the results get better the longer students are in charters, and although the math scores are down somewhat from earlier in the 2010s (and reading is up just slightly) this is still strong sector performance. There is more in the analysis on that, including demographic breakouts, you should read. Here are the students being served:


Robertson was also a major supporter of Success Academy Charter Schools, a network of schools that set a standard for agility and serving students effectively despite the pandemic. Success serves more than 21,000 students across 49 schools, so they didn’t do this because they’re small.

I didn’t know Roberston well at all, although he funded some analysis work at Bellwether. I can say that when I was with him he consistently asked smart questions and was interested in what works to get results for kids. And he supported schools that are changing the lives of kids by giving them better options than they’d otherwise have. That chart above with math and reading impacts is no small thing for low-income parents in New York City.

So look, not to be snarky about it, but a lot of kids would benefit from a “mixed” record like that or successes like that “here and there.” A lot of parents would like that sort of “flagging” effort – that’s why there are so many waiting lists for charters with tens of thousands of parents trying to get a better option for their child. Who is the strongest bulwark against this? Guess.

My point is that not that charters are perfect, or there are not problems – I’ve written about all that at length. Here’s some data. And I’m not arguing that all of Julian Robertson’s philanthropy was fantastic – I have no idea about that. Rather, my point is about fecklessness. A sector that continues to talk down results like this, minimize them, or wish them away (and the results of urban charters more generally) is feckless. People who tolerate that sort of rhetoric as business as usual in a sector that serves young people are feckless. And it’s the kind of sector that is going to get you results like we just saw on the NAEP when there is a national crisis because it allows that kind of fecklessness to persist, more than that to thrive, unchecked.