Another ESA momma bear attack spotted in the Arizona Republic letter page

August 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

If you are squinting  at your iPad, this letter basically asks where the calls for oversight were when her child’s district received $26,000 from the state and the district delivered an hour of speech therapy with a side order of indifference. “Before we attack and try to defund the ESA program that is doing a lot of good things for disabled kids, maybe we should look into the lack of oversight and accountability in our public schools.”

Monday Links

August 14, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Smarick turns in an interesting article on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions and education reform in National Affairs. Great article, although I believe Smarick’s article would profit by acknowledging almost catastrophic flaws in school district democracy, including often extremely low voter turnout rates and resulting opportunities for regulatory capture.

Kate Walsh on K-12 progress that is going unnoticed. Before this college success of charter school meme gets entirely out of hand, I want to suggest that we should get the comparisons between control group and experimental group studies on long-term success nailed down before going to town on this. We do have reason to suspect those applying to charters are different from those that don’t.

Interesting article on Why Education is the Hardest Sector to Automate by Raya Bidshahri.

Yours truly on Arizona Horizon debating ESAs with SoS leader Beth Lewis.



Christian Theology and Sending Your Kids to Public School

August 11, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest, on the question of whether sending your children to public schools should be considered mandatory, forbidden or neither under Christian theology.

First I respond to a Presbyterian pastor who says Christians should feel obligated to send their kids to public schools, because hundreds of years ago churches created the schools that public schools were later modeled on:

Moore seems not to have asked why, if churches were so aggressive in creating schools, government stepped in and used its power of taxation to drive churches (mostly) out of the schooling business. One reason was because the church schools taught people to think for themselves and live independently. As industrialists grew more powerful in the 19th century, they enlisted government to create a new school system whose products would provide more submissive and narrow-minded cogs for the factory machine. (Big business and big government colluding to destroy freedom and oppress the poor—it all seems so familiar, almost as if we’ve seen it somewhere before.)

However, the more important reason was religious. Massachusetts created the first government school monopoly in America in the 1830s, partly out of submission to exploitative industrialists, but also because the Unitarian Boston Brahmins were horrified at the unreconstructed Calvinism of the Massachusetts countryside. The new public schools indoctrinated students in a religion of good works without the cross, tearing up the cultural roots of puritanism. (One would think this history would be of interest to a Presbyterian pastor.)

The tool created to destroy Calvinism in Massachusetts was soon deployed nationwide in hopes of destroying Catholicism…

Then I respond to an Anglican priest who says any school that isn’t explicitly Christian must be treated as atheistic and avoided:

It is true, as Fowler argues, that there is no such thing as religious neutrality. All human beings have some kind of cosmic worldview, and everything we do presupposes that worldview. Even to assert “2+2=4” presupposes the view that the human mind is rational, and its spontaneous intuitions about the relationships between numbers are sound (and, for that matter, that other minds exist and I can communicate meaningfully with them). All of these premises are religious, or at least metaphysical.

However, while there is no such thing as religious neutrality, there is religious ambiguity. To assert “2+2=4” is not a religiously neutral statement, but it does not settle all religious questions, either. A Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu have three very different metaphysical accounts of what the human mind is, yet each can square “2+2=4” with their view.

Thus, a school that is not explicitly Christian need not become explicitly atheist. It need not even become implicitly atheist. It may be implicitly Christian! Or it may be a shared possession, offering an educational discourse that accommodates a diverse population without resolving their religious differences.

I argue we are neither compelled nor forbidden by Christian theology in the matter of sending children to public school:

Parents should evaluate local schools, public and private, and select the one that aligns best with their views and goals. My wife and I send our daughter to the local government school, because we are more satisfied with it on all counts—including spiritually—than the available alternatives. Others, facing other circumstances, may legitimately make other choices.

We live under neither a Babylonian captivity to public schools nor an Egyptian exodus from them. We live in the freedom of Pentecost, sent out into the nations to live in the tension of being in the world but not of it:

The problem with both Babylon and Exodus as social models for Christianity today is that they both come from the Old Testament, before Christ’s coming. With the Great Commission, Christ has sent his people out into the world; he wants disciples of every nation. Where the Jews were called out of Egypt, we are called into Egypt—our road is an eisodus, not an exodus. But we are not called to live passively, like the exiles in Babylon, merely marking time in a foreign land. The church has a mission to build godly ways of life wherever we go, and that means we can’t simply conform to the world around us or bunker down in Christian ghettos.

Whatever your faith and whatever you think of my theology, I welcome your feedback – and I promise not to lie about your views and then fire you!

Recall Challenge for Arizona ESA expansion

August 10, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Anti-choice activists delivered 111,540 petition signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office two days ago in advance of the deadline in order to subject SB 1431 (2017 ESA expansion) to a vote of the public. Whether or not this will result in the number of legally required valid signatures remains unclear- judging from the previous history of validity rates it is very likely to be close either way. It will take weeks before we have a final answer. Only the expansion of the program, rather than the program itself, faces uncertainty. The program will continue to operate for the students eligible under the previous law without interruption.

What “Save Our Schools” group has done is both impressive and misguided. The chattering classes in Arizona, including me, were broadly skeptical regarding their chances. Gathering signatures out in the summer Arizona heat is an indicator of real passion. Their fury however were deeply misplaced. The real victims here are the hundreds of parents who had submitted an application to the Department of Education to participate and the larger number who had planned to apply.

Last Friday at a public Arizona Talks debate, Zeus Rodriguez made the point that the question of whether to have parental choice and the question of how much to spend on public schools are entirely separate decisions. Choice opponents seem to fail to appreciate that school funding decisions are reached democratically (both directly and indirectly) and that districts remain (by far) the best funded option both in absolute and on a per student basis. The fixation on the ESA program as a boogeyman is especially odd. Approximately 3,500 students participated in the AZESA program last year- we have multiple individual high schools with more students. Whether you examine numbers of students or dollars invested, the absurdity of blaming private choice for every district grievance becomes clear:

and in terms of dollars:

Funding for K-12 education is guaranteed in the Arizona Constitution and this provision enjoys the broad support of the public. It is under no threat from anyone as far as I can tell. The history of the last 22 years demonstrates that even the district portion of public education has more kids and more money than when parental choice experiments began. Fast growing states do not in other words face a zero sum game. Had Arizona choice supporters been out to “destroy public education” in the state the two charts above demonstrate that this imaginary effort would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

Fortunately, our real project is entirely different.

The evidence supporting the real project (improving variety, diversity and performance) is much stronger. Arizona has more choice options than any other state, and alone among all states made statistically significant progress on all six NAEP exams for the entire period that we can track all exams (2009-2015). When you net out significant declines from increases the typical state saw one significant increase during this period.  Arizona students made more progress on math 2009 and 2013 as 4th/8th graders, and then did it again between 2011 and 2015. This of course does not prove that choice caused the improvement, but when you take a close look at the gains, it is very difficult indeed to argue that they have hurt:

Stay tuned to see what happens next. My sympathies lie entirely with the families who just had an opportunity yanked away just before the start of the school year.



More Chutzpah

August 7, 2017

In my last post I described how Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters (APW) released an evaluation of the 1st year results from Louisiana’s voucher program through NBER dated December 2015 (although actually released in January 2016) that failed to cite or provide appropriate credit to earlier conference presentations by Jonathan Mills and Patrick Wolf and a dissertation by Mills.  In response APW issued a statement that raises many issues, but fails to address the heart of the matter. Before replying to some of those extraneous issues, let’s focus on the key questions:

  1. Did Jon and Pat conduct analyses, write papers, and present findings to the academic community of the same program using the same basic methodology and data as APW prior to their December 2015 NBER paper?
  2. Were APW aware of this prior work?
  3. Did APW fail to cite and give appropriate credit to that prior work in their December 2015 NBER paper?

If you read their statement closely you will see that APW do not deny the existence of prior work, do not deny being aware of that work, and do not deny failing to cite it. Let’s take a look at what they did say.

The No Prior Working Papers Claim

APW do not deny that Jon and Pat had multiple conference papers, starting with one to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management on November 8, 2013 followed by 8 more during 2014 and 2015.  Instead they focus on whether there were prior working papers: “Mills and Wolf released a working paper in February 2016. This is the first working paper by the Arkansas team that we are aware of.” Christopher Walters reiterates this point in a comment on the blog: “We would have cited a public working paper had we known of one in December 2015.”

There are two problems with this no prior working paper argument.  First, a working paper is not the only format of prior academic work that requires citation.  There is no exemption to the scholarly obligation to credit prior work if that work is in the form of conference papers and presentations.  In fact, the American Economics Association helpfully provides guidance on the appropriate way to cite “Lectures and Papers Presented at Meetings.”

Second, there is a very good reason why Jon and Pat did not have a working paper for APW to cite and APW are almost certainly aware of that reason: The Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) asked Jon and Pat not to widely disseminate their findings until after the second year of results were complete. LDE had made the same request of APW, who similarly complied with that request before deciding that it would take them too long to finish the 2nd year analyses.  As APW describe it in their statement: “We postponed the release of our paper because the LDE promised us additional data in exchange for delaying public disclosure of our results. We released the paper when we judged that this data was not forthcoming.”

While Jon and Pat did not widely publicize the results of their 1st year evaluation by issuing a working paper online, they did not keep their findings a secret.  They presented their results at numerous conferences and in a dissertation, and they solicited feedback and suggestions from colleagues (including from Abdulkadiroglu).  And they took that time to resolve missing data issues, complete the 2nd year analyses, and release both 1st and 2nd year results in a working paper only a month after APW released their 1st year results.

By contrast, APW operated in a different manner.  As far as I can tell they did not present their work at any meeting of a professional association prior to December 2015.  They did not disclose to Pat and Jon that they were planning to conduct or were already conducting their own study, even when Pat and Jon discussed the research with Abdulkadiroglu.  They also did not take the time to work out data issues with LDE and wait for the 2nd year of results before releasing their NBER report. And the failure of that report to cite and credit the work produced by Jon and Pat cannot be excused because Jon and Pat didn’t put a working paper online.

The Data Sharing Agreement Claim

APW’s statement does not deny being aware of prior work by Jon and Pat.  In Walter’s comment on the blog, however, he does say “We were not aware of the Mills dissertation chapter …”  But Abdulkadiroglu, not Walters, was at the lunch with Jon and Pat in June 2015.  The statement they issued together does not deny that Abdulkadiroglu was told about Jon’s dissertation work at that lunch.  Instead it denies that Jon’s dissertation was the origin of APW’s work: “This conversation centered on the use of school assignment mechanisms for program evaluation. The conversation occurred more than two years after we signed our data agreement to evaluate the LSP using lotteries, so it was clearly not the inspiration for our work.”

Whatever inspired their work does not obviate their scholarly obligation to cite and give appropriate credit to academic work on the same program that had been produced prior to their December 2015 NBER report. The existence and date of APW’s data sharing agreement with LDE is irrelevant to whether they failed to cite and give appropriate credit to previously produced work.

But in a comment on the blog, Walters offers a novel interpretation of what “prior work” means: “Your team’s research is not ‘prior work.’ As shown by the date on the data agreement provided in our response, the two projects were in progress simultaneously.” By prior work I mean research findings that had been produced and shared with the academic community before December 2015.  The fact that both research teams had data sharing agreements does not erase the fact that Jon and Pat had produced, presented, and published (in a dissertation) results prior to the December 2015 NBER report.

In addition, it should be noted that Walters’ description that “the two projects were in progress simultaneously” is very different from APW’s characterization of Jon and Pat’s work as a “followup analysis” in the footnote they added to their NBER report after Jon and Pat released their February 2016 working paper with the 1st and 2nd year results. It should be further noted that even that amended paper does not provide a proper citation because Jon and Pat’s work is missing from the reference section.

Even though the existence and date of the data sharing agreements is irrelevant to the scholarly obligation to cite prior work, the suggestion that APW had an agreement that pre-dated Jon and Pat’s by two years is incorrect.  Jon and Pat started negotiating a data sharing agreement with LDE during the fall of 2012, around the same time as APW, and concluded that agreement on January 8, 2013, two months after APW.  Jon and Pat were completely unaware of the existence of APW’s data sharing agreement or that APW were pursuing a similar line of research with the same data.

The data sharing agreements are further irrelevant because they do not establish when the research teams actually started the research in earnest.  We know that Jon and Pat had started their research during 2013 because they presented preliminary findings at the APPAM conference in November 2013. The earliest we know APW had written-up results, according to reporting by The 74 Million, was in October 2015, when they presented them to LDE.  And when Jon and Pat discussed their research with Abdulkadiroglu in June 2015, it is unclear whether he failed to disclose that they were working on a similar study because APW had not actually started that work yet.

The You Didn’t Cite the Dissertation Either Claim

Finally, the APW statement seems to suggest that they are somehow absolved of the responsibility of citing Jonathan Mills’ dissertation because Jon and Pat also failed to cite that dissertation in some of their subsequent papers, including the February 2016 working paper with 1st and 2nd year results. First, it is an entirely different thing to deny oneself credit than to deny someone else credit.  Whether Jon and Pat made an error in failing to credit all of their own prior work does not excuse APW in making that error about someone else’s work.  This is especially the case because Jon and Pat’s failure to cite Jon’s dissertation does not mislead the reader about who had been the first to produce these results.  Second, Jon and Pat’s February 2016 working paper did cite a series of their own prior conference papers from 2014 and 2015, so they did clearly establish that they had been presenting results on the Louisiana program well before December 2015. APW might have noticed those references and acknowledged that record of prior work when they added the footnote in an update to their December 2015 NBER paper mentioning Jon and Pat’s February 2016 working paper.

Raising this issue is certainly not pleasant.  In fact, it’s down-right nerve-wracking and I can completely understand why Jon was reluctant to press this matter earlier.  But I think credit is being given to other researchers for being the first to produce an evaluation of achievement effects from the Louisiana voucher program that properly belongs to Jon and Pat.  I actually tried to resolve this amicably with Parag Pathak when he came to give a lecture at the University of Arkansas in 2016.  Parag had been invited prior to the December 2015 NBER report and his visit was uncomfortable.  It would have been more uncomfortable if either Jon or Pat were there, but Jon had already left for a post-doc at Tulane and Pat had another obligation.  Contrary to the APW statement, I did raise the bruised feelings over credit and data access with Parag and suggested that he might smooth things over with Jon and Pat and perhaps regain access to LDE data if he were to suggest collaboration on some future project with them.  I suggested at the very least he should call Pat and talk to him.  He never did.

Florida Scholarship Program Serves 100,000+ Students

August 7, 2017

Image: “Rally in Tally” to support school choice on March 24, 2011.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

I still frequently see the canard that “poor families can’t benefit from school choice programs.”

Oh really? Tell that to the 100,000+ kids from low-income families in Florida receiving tax-credit scholarships through Step Up for Students. Average family income: $24,000.

Also, contra the false “minorities don’t benefit” narrative, about seven in 10 scholarship students are black or Hispanic.


Innovators and Laggards in Southern Arizona

August 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Tucson Daily Star carried an (unintentionally) amusing vignette on education policy. Arizona has a growing teacher shortage. Baby Boomers retiring, fewer students going to Colleges of Education, etc. Old hat to long-time JPGB readers such as yourselves. So last session the legislature decided to show a bit of respect to “local control” and give school districts more flexibility in hiring. Arizona charter schools have been hiring non-certified teachers for 22 years now and it seems to be working just dandy on the whole, so why not give districts the same larger pond in which to fish for talent?

I must have seen my friend Janice Palmer, the former lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association who now works for the Helios Foundation, attempt to remind legislators that they believe in local control umpteen dozen times over the years. Moreover I am entirely confident that I saw but a small fraction of the total number of such appeals. Districts want local control-so here it is!

So what’s the problem? Nothing much, except most of the districts in Tucson either don’t want it or can’t quite figure out what to do with it. From the Daily Star:

The measure, approved in May, was designed to get more teachers into classrooms, yet weeks before the school year was set to begin, Tucson-area districts reported having nearly 200 openings to fill.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, made up the bulk of those vacant teaching positions, with 120 as of Wednesday, July 26. Still, TUSD said it plans to place long-term substitute teachers in classrooms rather than hiring people with no formal training.

“We’re big advocates of teacher certification programs, believing that teaching kids is an art and you learn that in teacher education programs,” said TUSD interim Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo. “I don’t want to make the assumption that someone without certification would be bad for kids. There are a lot of wonderful adults who would do well by kids … I would say they wouldn’t be as effective as a teacher as somebody who is fully certified.”

Well then let’s check the research-paging Dr. Gordon. Dr. Robert Gordon of the Brookings Hamilton Project. Dr. Gordon? Oh here you are:

So certification path seems to have approximately nothing to do with student learning gains. Colleges of Education shouldn’t feel too bad as I am sure that medical schools in the Middle Ages also suffered from this sort of thing. And of course the “long-term substitutes” theory tends to often work out as “revolving door of instructors inflicted on kids” rather quickly in practice.

Ah well, not all is lost in southern Arizona. The district with the strongest reputation for innovation-Vail Unified to the south of Tucson-took a different approach. They decided to use their new freedom.

The Vail School District, recognized as one of the top achieving districts in the state, however, has decided to give noncertified teachers a shot, putting 40 people with no formal training into classrooms.

As a result, Vail started the new school year two weeks ago with no vacancies in a regular classroom.

“That was a huge accomplishment,” said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker. “If you look at what’s happening in other school districts in the county, many have over the last couple years as the teacher shortage has become more acute, often students were starting the school year with a substitute teacher. We had to do that in the last couple years and we managed to avoid that this year and we did that because in part we had access to a larger pool of candidates.”

But the Vail School District isn’t just hiring anyone, Baker said.

Of the 24 elementary alternative certification teachers, 17 are Vail School District parents.

“I think that’s a really important statistic because it indicates that the alternative teachers we are hiring, most of them are not just somebody we met or just on a fluke decided to apply and we hired because we are desperate,” Baker said. “These are people we know because their children are going to school here and often their principal said, ‘You should apply.’ And these are people who know us and who have trusted their children to us and have a very strong commitment to making sure our schools are of high quality.”

Superintendent Baker was quick to add that liberalized certification is not a cure-all for the teacher shortage (I agree) but kudos to him for starting the year with a teacher for every classroom. And call me crazy but hiring people who have skin in the game and have already been volunteering and training them up sounds like a great idea.

Tucson Unified kids have been transferring to Vail schools through open enrollment in large numbers for many years. If TUSD parents find their kids getting the revolving door treatment, they should consider doing the same.