Margaret Raymond is the founding director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, known as CREDO, which is part of the Hoover Institution located at Stanford University. CREDO’s mission is researching and evaluating educational policy and is best known for its research studies on charter schools in the United States.

Raymond this week made some remarks about charter schools that are causing a stir in the education world. First, some background to put those remarks in context.

CREDO’s unique studies of charter schools around the country —  which collectively conclude that sometimes they perform better than traditional public schools and sometimes they don’t — are widely cited in the education world by both pro- and anti-charter activists to support their different points. CREDO’s newest report is on charter schools in Ohio, and it finds that charter school students in the state are learning less than students in traditional public schools, the equivalent of 36 days of learning in math and 14 days in reading.

What gets often lost in these discussions is that the studies are based on reading and math standardized test scores. Even if you think that high-stakes standardized test scores reveal something about how much a student knows in the tested subject — and many researchers and educators don’t — it is a different thing altogether to judge an entire school on the results of narrow tests in two subject areas, however important they are. If the education world were not as test-obsessed as it has been since the advent of No Child Left Behind a dozen years ago and Race to the Top in 2009, such a metric for important conclusions would probably be given short shrift. But not today, so the CREDO studies are considered big news.

Another reason that the CREDO studies are of interest to both pro- and anti-charter activists revolves around CREDO, Hoover and Raymond. CREDO says on its Web site that it “has become a leading independent voice in the discussion of how to improve education in America, with an emphasis on rigorous program and policy analysis as the means of informing and improving education decision making.” Critics have questioned the “independent” part.

The Hoover Institution is a conservative think tank that is squarely pro-charter and a believer in using market forces to reform the U.S. educational system. CREDO accepts funds from pro-charter and pro-market foundations, including the Walton Foundation. Raymond’s biography on the Web site of the Hoover Institution, where she is a research fellow, says in part:

“In partnership with the Walton Family Foundation and Pearson Learning Systems, Raymond is leading a national study of the effectiveness of public charter schools. The public-academic-private partnership helps public charter schools adopt information technologies as a means to both support their operations and generate information required by the study design. More than 250 public charter schools have joined the study to date.”

Pearson is the largest for-profit education publishing company in the world.

Raymond is married to Eric Hanushek, a Hoover economist was a pioneer in creating systems that evaluate teachers by student standardized tests, a method that many assessment experts say should not be used in the  high-stakes ways that school reformers are using them. He is often cited in CREDO studies as a “principal investigator.”

Raymond and Hanushek sometimes are given data that other researchers aren’t. In 2013, the 19th Judicial District Court ruled that the state Department of Education could pick and choose which researchers it provided with raw data that would help them determine if school reform efforts are working. A watchdog group called Research on Reforms, Inc., which had been critical of Louisiana school reform, was denied the data and had sued to get it. Who was given the information? A data-sharing agreement was signed by Raymond, as CREDO director, and Hanushek, as “principal investigator,” and Ollie Tyler,  acting state superintendent of education at the time the memo was signed in 2011. It runs through 2016 and provides CREDO with detailed Louisiana information.

Given that background, anti-charter activists have been eager to cite CREDO reports that show no benefit to charter schools or negative results as much because of the data itself but because of who was doing the reporting.

That all leads us to this week, when Raymond spoke at a City Club of Cleveland event about the Ohio report (you can listen to the podcast here), which was funded by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which is distinctly pro-charter and pro-reform. She made the following comment, as first reported on the 10th Period blog by Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, a former congressman and school funding expert  and Policy Fellow at Innovation Ohio. She said:

This is one of the big insights for me. I actually am kind of a pro-market kinda girl. But it doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education. I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career. That’s my academic focus for my work. And it’s [education] the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work. I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state. I think there are other supports that are needed. Frankly parents have not been really well educated in the mechanisms of choice.… I think the policy environment really needs to focus on creating much more information and transparency about performance than we’ve had for the 20 years of the charter school movement. I think we need to have a greater degree of oversight of charter schools, but I also think we have to have some oversight of the overseers.

Dyer wrote that he found these comments, coming from Raymond, to be somewhat remarkable:

Considering that the pro-market reform Thomas B. Fordham Foundation paid for this study and Raymond works at the Hoover Institution at Stanford — a free market bastion, I was frankly floored, as were most of the folks at my table.
For years, we’ve been told that the free market will help education improve. As long as parents can choose to send their kids to different schools, like cars or any other commodity, the best schools will draw kids and the worst will go away. The experience in Ohio is the opposite. The worst charter schools in Ohio are growing by leaps and bounds, while the small number of successful charter schools in Ohio have stayed, well, a small number of successful charter schools.
Raymond made the point too that parents are not informed enough to be true market consumers on education. Websites like Know Your Charter can help with that educational aspect of the parental choice, better arming parents with the necessary information to make a more informed decision. But to hear free market believers say that 20 years into the charter school experiment its foundational philosophy — that the free market’s invisible hand will drive educational improvement — is not working? Well, I was stunned to hear that.
Raymond also made the point that the states that are seeing the best charter school performance are states whose charter school authorizers are focused on quality and have robust accountability measures — in other words, well-regulated…. When the CREDO report was released, it was discovered that if online and for-profit charter schools are taken out of the equation, Ohio charters don’t perform all that bad. Problem is that more than 57 percent of Ohio charter school kids are in those schools. In fact, at Know Your Charter, we found that less than 10 percent of Ohio’s charter school kids are in schools that score above the state average on the Performance Index Score or have an A or B in overall value added.

I asked Raymond to further explain her remarks and this is she what she wrote in an e-mail:

In other industries, real markets are able to develop and function because suppliers and consumers get to meet each other in an unfettered set of offers and demands for goods or services.  There are no intermediary agents who guard access to supply or who aggregate demand and thus sway the free exchange of supply and demand.  Part of that free exchange relies on complete transparency about the attributes of the goods on offer and their prices, and the transactions are “known” by the participants in an open and complete way.
I think you can see that as currently organized, public K-12 education does not meet those conditions.  States and LEAs [local education agencies] act on behalf of students and parents, often with imperfect information, and supply is controlled by interests that have agendas other than free exchange.
The remark today was about “early adopter” charter states that built charter laws on the faith that a little bit of competition from charter schools would a) function entirely on parental choice (free and transparent information about the range of options and their “prices”) and b) a rapid response from the rest of the suppliers in reaction to expressed demand for “something different.”
That is not to say that a market orientation COULDN’T EVER work, I was just saying that the early period of the charter movement was a bit optimistic and premature to think that decades of controlled monopoly conduct would be influenced quickly by small numbers of consumers.