Arizona Superintendent Diane Douglas Delivers Reality Check (No, really!)

March 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This morning Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, acting within the responsibilities of her office and seeking to protect the best interest of Arizona students imo, released a power point presentation providing a reality check regarding some recent legislation regarding state standards. Here is a copy of the first slide:


And here is the second:

AZ DoE 2


Zero snark here: I commend Superintendent Douglas for taking this step. None of this means Arizona can’t adopt its own academic standards (I expect that we will do so) but it does mean that some careful thought about how to do it is in order. Yes I agree that the feds should not be taking our money and then giving some of it back in the form of school aid so they can boss us around etc. but Superintendent Douglas is living in the real world rather than a preferred world. I don’t think many would like to be in the situation of having Arizona taxpayers helping to pay for the U.S. DoE budget while dealing ourselves out of any of the funding for AZ schools. This #shadowfaction member applauds the Superintendent for this move!



Multiple States Ditch My Little Pony Coloring Book Quality Academic Exams

March 12, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

New article on the quality of state tests vis a vis NAEP by Paul Peterson and Matthew Akerman at Education Next. The authors demonstrate a trend towards closer alignment in proficiency rates between state exams and NAEP during the Common Core era, with 20 states narrowing the gap. Several states, including at least Arizona and Florida, will debut new tests in a few weeks.

Of special interest to me in the above chart is the overall averages by year trends. Notice Tennessee’s long string of F grades, followed by A grades in 2011 and 2013. Was it a coincidence that Tennessee saw more NAEP progress than any other state between 2011 and 2013? Perhaps so, perhaps not.

Notice also however Washington D.C., which had even larger aggregate NAEP gains than Tennessee between 2011 and 2013 (and a long history of NAEP progress before 2013). Nothing but C grades thus far, but charter schools have been taking the place over and outscoring the (improving) district. Apparently there is more than one path up the mountain.

Can we attribute the general increase in the rigor of state tests to Common Core? The authors note in a fashion as dry as a martini:

CCSS may be driving these changes. One indication that this may be the case is that the six states that are not implementing CCSS for reading or math all continue to set low proficiency standards. Their grades: Virginia, C+; Nebraska, C; Indiana, C-; Texas, C-; Alaska, D+; and Oklahoma, D.

Regardless of where you stand on the Common Core project, and we’ve beat the horse into hamburger on it here, state tests with the approximate rigor of a My Little Pony coloring book- look Mommy I colored this unicorn blue-I’m PROFICIENT!!!– deserve no one’s support.  

In other words, if you are a Tennessee opponent of Common Core you owe everyone a realistic plan that keeps you at an A on this chart. If you want to go back to the old system, you need to explain why you want to spend tax dollars on a state sponsored weapon of mass deception (years of tests that proclaimed you proficient when you signed your name).

This is the space that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey staked out in his campaign- standards that are high but not common. It will be no small task to pull this off in practice, but it is the best path for an opponent of the Common Core project to follow.






Get your #Shadowfaction coffee mugs here!

February 19, 2015


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So we’ve had a little drama out here in the cactus patch.

Arizona has a State Board of Education appointed by the Governor and a Superintendent of Public Instruction elected by the voters. Per the Arizona Constitution, the Superintendent is a member of the Board. The previous Governor appointed all of the current members of the board. The board has a small staff, and we are five or so weeks into the terms of the new Governor (Ducey) and Superintendent (Douglas).  Some of the current members of the Board participated in the decision for Arizona to join Common Core. Governor Ducey campaigned on replacing Common Core while keeping high standards. Opposition to the Common Core served as the animating issue of the Douglas campaign.

A few days ago one of Douglas’ subordinates appeared before the two top staffers of the State Board of Education, announced that they were fired, and had an officer escort them out of the Department of Education building (the Arizona Board’s meeting room and staff inhabits the Department of Education building). The Board chair immediately stated that the Superintendent lacked the legal authority to take this action.

Governor Ducey’s team studied the matter over night and in the morning sided with the Board. As it happens, there is a directly on point advisory opinion from the Arizona Attorney General on the subject from 1985. The underlying statutes are clearly murky. Officials routinely follow Attorney General opinions in preference to having office holders sue each other- a sort of intergovernmental arbitration but formally lacking the force of law or a court decision. It would likely take an incredibly erroneous advisory opinion to have a court reach a different conclusion quite frankly because courts are busy with real cases and aren’t likely to want to jump into the quagmire of endless minor disputes. Advisory opinions are the fast solution to this with strong incentives for officeholders to abide by them.

This AG opinion examined the relevant statutes and clearly sides with the Board on the question of who has the authority to hire and fire board staff.

So why are you reading this tedious story? For the fun part, the epic press release from the Superintendent. Her reading of the relevant statutes is very different than the advisory opinion. The press release accuses Governor Ducey of seeking to short change schools “to give his corporate cronies tax cuts.” This is a reference to an ongoing lawsuit by public schools against the state, but that lawsuit is currently in settlement talks, the state is broke, and only modest tax changes have been placed on the agenda this year.

A little further down she states that “Clearly he has established a shadow faction of charter school operators and former state Superintendents who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.” This is an overt reference to my Ducey transition K-12 co-chairs (one works for a prominent charter school outfit and the other is a former Superintendent of Public Instruction who supports Commn Core) and well, anyone who wants to know what any of us think about K-12 policy can either ask us, or gather intelligence through “google.” I mean I guess there is some way to be more transparent on the subject than writing columns, studies, blog posts, books and giving public talks, but I just don’t know what it is yet.

No, no, NO! #shadowFACTION! Not you!

Common Core as a plot to drive more students to charter schools is an innovative theory, but one that fails to withstand a moment of scrutiny. Charter schools are subject to exactly the same testing requirements as district schools. Unless the charter school folks have somehow stolen the answer key this seems fanciful. Did I mention that Governor Ducey does not support Common Core? Yes, that again.

Anyhoo, later down the press release makes a rather strident complaint about the need for lay-persons and African Americans on the board. This is odd in that Governor Ducey has yet to make any appointments to the Board and has been in office for all of five weeks and has pressing matters like a very large budget deficit and other issues with which to contend.

Just to be clear I personally am comfortable with the position Governor Ducey articulated in the campaign on state standards-high but not common.  Arizona has had them in the past but lacked the fortitude to keep them. The state will have academic standards for district and charter schools for the foreseeable future, and Arizona’s old system jumped the shark many years ago. Having said that, the state is scheduled to give a test in a little over two months and has yet to do little things like set the cut scores, a task for (you guessed it) the Board, who could use, well, a staff.

40% of Arizona 4th graders can’t read and less than 19% of the graduating AZ public school Class of 2006 received a BA degree in six years. Listen closely and you just might hear the soft melodies of a violin rising above the crackle of the flames. I’ll be over here in the corner drinking coffee if anyone feels like moving on to a serious conversation on AZ K-12.










Netherlanders over alle, of bijna alle

January 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

New Atlantic piece on education in the Netherlands, where teachers call the shots, anyone can open a school, parents have choice, and religion is treated with neutrality rather than viewed as a public menace. Any guesses on what teacher job satisfaction looks like in the Netherlands? How about student test scores? How much do they spend per pupil compared to us?

What is that Mr. DNA OECD? You can answer some of these question? Why yes, please do!


Oklahoma Drama Full of Sound and Fury but ends in a whimper

December 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

One bit of 2014 business to address: Oklahoma got their NCLB waiver back after their universities certified their previous standards and tests (which compared relatively well to NAEP) as college and career ready. Note that the story includes the nugget that 40% of Oklahoma college students require remedial education despite those highly thought of standards and tests. Paging Dr. Loveless, Dr. Hanushek! It’s possible that it would have been even worse without good standards and tests but to borrow a line from Sol Stern, good standards and tests are not enough.

On the process issue conditional waivers exceed the authority of the United States Secretary of Education and constitute a piece in a larger mosaic of an attempt to rule by administrative fiat. Unlike the Hotel California, however, you can both check out and leave the CC either without penalty (Oklahoma) after jumping through a hoop. Alternatively states can call Secretary Duncan’s bluff and simply drop their NCLB waiver because the consequences just aren’t that big of a deal (Washington- still no waiver riots on the streets of Seattle). It might at some point occur to someone in Washington or some future waiver-dropping state to file suit over conditional waivers.

It appears that the Secretary has been bluffing with a weak waiver hand, smiling to himself as states all-too-eagerly fold. States wishing to leave the CC however should give some thought as to what they would like to get out of their state testing system rather than adopting a “shoot-ready-aim” approach. My Little Pony connect-a-dot tests may not merit the approval of state university systems, and unlike Oklahoma not all states have decent systems to fall back on. The exit door however is clearly open.










The Anti-Testing Zombie Apocalypse

December 1, 2014

Grrrrrr….testing ruin flavor of BRAINSSSZZZSSSS!!!!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

While some of the strongest supporters of standardized testing have allowed their minds to wander to counter-productive uses of overstretched waiver authority in the already dying days of a lame-duck administration, rumors have reached my ears of growing support for eliminating annual testing as a requirement under NCLB in Congress.

This may seem implausible to some, but after watching a 30+ year bipartisan consensus on transparency fold like a house of cards in Texas, nothing seems impossible. Discuss among yourselves…

The hour is later than you think…

The Trouble with Baking Achievement Gap Measures into State Accountability Systems

October 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

On March 9, 1974 Yoshimi Taniguchi, a Japanese book merchant and former Major in the Japanese Imperial Army, traveled to the Philippines in order to order a former subordinate, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda to stand down from combat operations. Lieutenant Onoda had received news of Japan’s surrender in World War II, but had concluded that it was mere enemy propaganda. Firm in this misapplied conviction, Onoda carried on a long since concluded war for almost 30 years.

Onoda may have misspent three decades in an island jungle, but on a positive note he at least inspired an episode of Gilligan’s Island (Ginger in fact defeated his doppelganger in a judo battle).  More disturbingly, he may have also passed his die-hard spirit on to NCLB’s last stalwart defenders of achievement gap mania and the dream of mandated perfection.

I should begin by saying that I do believe that achievement gaps are very important. I went back to review a post I wrote a blog post three years ago called In Defense of Achievement Gap Mania and found nothing that I had changed my mind about on this subject.  Getting low-performing American students on a faster academic pace is of the utmost importance.

I am however mystified by the Onoda-style defense of NCLB’s unworkable division of schools into multiple subgroups with targets for narrowing and ultimately closing all achievement gaps on the equivalent of a train schedule. That would have all been enormously beneficial if it had worked, but let’s just say that the trains weren’t showing much sign of arriving on time, sometimes at all. We could discuss various ways states found to escape from the NCLB subgroup noose at length (hello n-size manipulation!) but there are deeper problems to discuss.

Today we find NCLB diehards sprinkled throughout the K-12 reform conversation archipelago. In this recent post on Eduwonk, Anne Hyslop  goes Banzai! corrects factual problems in a recent New York Times story focusing on the flaws of NCLB. My own take on this is that Hyslop is probably completely correct in her assertions. I however believe that they are largely irrelevant to the bigger picture.  When I read a paragraph explaining how technical mumbo jumbo safe harbor confidence intervals actually mean that the mandated 100% proficiency mandate doesn’t actually arrive until 2016 instead of in 2014, it makes me chuckle. Do we imagine that when educators read the fine print they will rush to embrace NCLB’s machine of mandated universal proficiency with open arms? Or would it be more accurate to say that many educators never took AMO schedules seriously in the first place, confident that they would be dropped (they were- through the waiver process).

Ed Trust released a report recently critical of NCLB waivers. I personally don’t like NCLB waivers either given the Secretary’s lack of obvious authority to grant conditional waivers, but that is not what has Ed Trust excited. They think that the Secretary ought to have used his non-existent conditional waiver authority to mandate gap closing measures into state accountability systems.

Stand down Lt. Po…that’s an ORDER!

Ed Trust is careful towards the end of their study to say that they are NOT calling for a return to NCLB’s multiple pathways to failure based on myriad subgroups in pursuit of mandated improvement on a schedule. Hey its 2014 and they aren’t that crazy, you see, they just seem to want Secretary Duncan to work something out with these states that will be the functional equivalent of NCLB’s multiple pathways to failure based on myriad subgroups in pursuit of dramatic improvement by mandate on a schedule. That would do just fine.

Ed Trust (and others) seems sufficiently wedded to NCLB-era mechanics that they dislike an elegant improvement-the super subgroup. Florida policymakers grade schools half on proficiency (the % passing state exams) and half on student progress over time. They double-weighted the importance of the progress of the lowest performing 25% of students from the last year’s test. The students falling behind thus constitute the “super subgroup” and they became the most important students in the building for determining a school’s grade. They count against all three of the main three components of a school grade: overall proficiency, overall growth and the growth of the students who have fallen behind.

The super subgroup doesn’t ask whether you are White, Black, Asian, American Indian, economically disadvantaged, an English Language Learner or a child with a disability, blue-eyed or left-handed. It simply identifies the lowest performing children in the school and puts a special emphasis on their academic gains over time.  It doesn’t create a perverse incentive to ignore an academically struggling child because he or she happens to be White, or because his or her parents make a little more money than this year’s Free and Reduced Lunch standard or because you’ve been reclassified out of SPED. Done properly, super subgroup creates a powerful incentive to identify struggling students regardless of their appearance and/or circumstances and get them making progress.

Oh, and the Ed Trust’s own previous research would lead one to the conclusion that it can help reduce achievement gaps. Not eliminate achievement gaps on a train schedule, mind you, but to make substantial progress on them by creating an incentive for schools to get struggling students to catch up. Who are the kids struggling? Why it is the kids on the short end of the achievement gaps as a matter of fact.  Florida kept A-F school grading up over a good period of time and you see gaps narrow in the best way possible- bottom scoring kids making greater progress than the still progressing top scoring kids.

The Ed Trust report tut-tuts things like Black students in A graded Florida schools scoring lower than White students in C graded schools as evidence that we ought to be including gap closure in state accountability systems.

Should we work ourselves into a froth about this? I personally don’t think so. Ed Trust’s own research has documented Florida’s overall progress in narrowing achievement gaps, but it’s not like they have eliminated achievement gaps. Would anyone be shocked to learn that ELL students at A graded schools score lower than non-ELL students at C schools? What about children with disabilities? Low-income children?  Ed Trust focused only on three states, but you could find similar results in any state.

The super-subgroup mechanism creates an incentive to get all students who have fallen behind to make academic progress. A moment of reflection regarding grading schools based upon various achievement gaps would give any thoughtful person pause. Do we really want to bake perverse incentives to stall the progress of high performing students into state accountability systems? Under the super sub-group, schools have any incentive to get any child that has fallen behind back on track. If states began rating them based on trends in achievement gaps, they could create perverse incentives to ignore their plight if they happened not to have a disability, or if they were a native English speaker, if their family made too much money for a free or reduced lunch, or if they were White.

Against this backdrop, the Ed Trust report seems strategically vague- not in favor the NCLB AYP system, but vaguely in favor of including achievement gaps in state grading systems. The fuzzy nature of these recommendations deftly avoids discussion of how to avoid creating cringe-inducing perverse incentives.

We live in a nation where Black and Hispanic students score closer on PISA to students in Mexico to those in South Korea or their own Anglo classmates. Mexico, btw, has far greater poverty and far lower public school spending than the United States. This is sickening, but we should exercise good judgment in addressing it. Previous Ed Trust research and the NAEP both show that it has achieved commendable gains in narrowing achievement gaps in Florida. In the country as a whole, not so much.

Thinking more broadly, we should recognize the NCLB era as a decentralized learning process. While NCLB created a general accountability rubric, many states had already created accountability systems of their own, creating the opportunity to learn from variations in policy approaches. Florida paid far more attention to school grades than to NCLB’s AYP and achieved greater than average gains among traditionally disadvantaged student groups.  I’m not a fan of conditional waivers, but we need to study and learn from the successes and failures of the diversity of approaches as best we can as well. It is understandable that there are many with a deep investment in NCLB, but we should not allow that attachment to blind us to something more effective at achieving its aims. The importance of achievement gaps should lead us to adopt the most effective methods for reducing them rather than pining for the ones we had hoped would eliminate them in short order.





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