It’s Too Much Winning Arizona!

April 25, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona winning just does not stop-BASIS scores five of the top 10 US News and World Report’s Top 10 high schools.

You other 49 states are cordially invited to join in the winning. We’ve yet to find any point of diminishing marginal returns here in the Cactus Patch.







April 24, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This weekend, the Arizona Republic editorial board cited a forthcoming report from the Morrison Institute to note that Arizona was the only state to achieve statistically significant increases on all six NAEP exams between 2009 and 2015. I decided to check it out.

The 2009 to 2015 period was not chosen arbitrarily, and has a good deal of historical significance. We can begin to track science achievement under the new framework starting in 2009. It is highly desirable to include science, as it is a “non-tested” subject for state accountability purposes. Starting the clock in 2009 is also useful historically as it tells us which states coped best with the Great Recession.

The chart above is a net of statistically significant gains minus statistically significant declines by test for the 2009 to 2015 period for 4th and 8th grade Math, Reading and Science. Only Arizona hit the maximum of six statistically significant improvements with zero statistically significant declines so got a score of six. South Dakota apparently had the worst overall performance with a minus three. Boring but necessary note: a few states (AK, CO,KS,NE,LA, PA and VT) did not participate in the Science exams, so their scores could only range between -4 and 4.

I think the President may have been referencing AZ NAEP scores when he said:

Review of Letters to a Young Reformer

April 23, 2017

Below is an edited version of a review of Rick Hess’ new book that John Thompson, educator and frequent internet commentator, sent to me.  While I’m sure that John and I do not see eye to eye on all things (I think I’m much shorter), I find his perspective valuable and there is much in this review that I find useful.  The original came in at over 5,000 words spread across multiple posts, but with his permission I have edited it down to about 2,000 words in a single post. Enjoy.

(Guest Post by  John Thompson)

I’m not sure that I completely believe him, but Rick Hess concludes his Letters to a Young Reformer by saying he’s not a nice guy. He chides the last generation of school reformers not for the not-nice things they’ve done, but for ignoring too many key tenets of professionalism. He also shares some valuable thoughts with “‘far-from-young,’ reformers,” and veteran teachers like me who still have a hard time grasping how and why the accountability-driven, competition-driven social engineering experiment was imposed on our nation’s schools.
Hess describes himself as a “little-r reformer,” as opposed to a “Big-R reformer.” Little-r reformers believe that schools can do a far better job, and that schooling must be reimagined. They are less confident than Big-R Reformers that they know the answers. Hess seeks a “big-tent” approach to education, and a small d-democratic vision for public education. Big-R Reform, however, “has congealed into a set of prescriptions, it has grown more bureaucratic and self-assured, and further and further removed from the intuitions of little-r reform.”
Similarly, Big-P Philanthropy has enabled the hubris of Big-R Reform, and furthered the move towards the micromanaging of diverse schools across the nation. When Big-R Reform, Big-Philanthropy, and an activist federal Department of Education join together in an effort to social engineer public education, dissent can be quashed. I would add that when the clash of ideas is driven out of schools, the way that it often has been during the last 15 years, democracy is undermined.
Hess explains to young reformers why they should learn to control their passion. Thinking that they are uniquely on the side of angels, reformers pushed the soundbite, “This is about kids, not adults!” In doing so, novice reformers remained oblivious to another of Hess’ truisms – “implementation matters.” Real world, Hess explains, “For better or worse, good schools are the product of thousands of tiny judgments that those educators make every day.” So, by definition, if you want to improve kids’ lives, continually disrespecting teachers is not the way to transform “the status quo.”
Hess does a great job in explaining how and why reformers often display little patience for opposing ideas or for obstacles to their grand theories. First, they were in much too much of a hurry to learn from history’s missteps. Reformers, who often had two or three years of classroom experience – or less – quickly developed an extreme case of “groupthink.” Not knowing what they didn’t know about the history of “silver bullets” that have been hurriedly and repeatedly dumped on our schools, “this or that group of reformers” have demonstrated a clear pattern where they “settle on an agenda and then dismiss doubters as troublemakers.”
As much as it pains me to admit this about a conservative, Hess offers the single most telling anecdote illustrating the irrationalities that groupthink can produce. In late 2002, Hess attended a secret briefing at the Pentagon about the Bush administration’s educational mission in Iraq. It was clear that nobody had much of an idea regarding the situation they would be facing. One issue dominated the meeting, however. Iraq needed its own version of No Child Left Behind!
Hess isn’t a fan of high-stakes testing and he is skeptical of the value-added teacher evaluations that were pushed by the Gates Foundation and the Duncan administration. He credits reformers for ending the “old stupid,” or ignoring data systems, while concluding “the slapdash embrace of half-baked data is ‘the new stupid.’” Hess estimates that test scores “reflect 30 to 35% of what we want schools to do.” The use of those metrics was supposed to move us into the “moneyball,” or the data-informed baseball coaching that was popularized by Michael Lewis. Real world, data moved schools into the pre-moneyball era. But, reformers chose to act nice by talking about teachers as if they are girl scouts. They then used value-added models in ways that teachers were bound to see as a “hatchet job.”
One of the best things about Hess, the Little-r reformer, is that he advises reformers to learn from history’s missteps. He understands that “implementation matters,” but that reformers can have little patience for opposition or obstacles to the experiments that they mandate. As Hess has watched “this or that group of reformers settle on an agenda and then dismiss doubters as troublemakers,” he has been dismayed by the “groupthink” that has grown out of their frustrations.
My favorite Hess statement is that Big-R Reformers “learned the lyrics, not the music.” I’ve repeatedly heard reformers, who had little or no experience in the classroom, complain that the attaching of stakes to test scores did not need to produce teach-to-the-test, basic skills instruction. They demand that “everyone sing from the same hymnal” but deny that any words in the lyrics require drill and kill. Being clueless about the people side of schooling, Big-RReformers never understood that it was not what they said that matters. What matters is what school systems would hear.
Of course, test-driven accountability, as well as using test scores as the ammunition in the fight between charters and neighborhood schools, forced administrators and teachers to engage in bubble-in malpractice. The big harm came from the rapid scaling up of high-stakes testing directed at individual teachers and students, and charters.  Even in the early days of No Child Left Behind, educators had plenty of options for pretending to comply with mandates while, predictably, shutting their classroom doors and continuing to teach in the same old, good and bad ways.  Reformers responded by doubling down on both the punitive in terms of both the survival of schools and the evaluations of individuals, and by a “growing fascination with PR campaigns and political strategies.”
As with NCLB, the Obama administration imposed quantifiable targets that obviously were impossible to meet. I don’t know when Hess attended the meeting described in Letters to a Young Reformer, but he recalls “a no-nonsense veteran” state administrator in Florida who said he could manage about seven turnarounds. The audible shock that he prompted would have been funny if it hadn’t illustrated the reality-free nature of the campaign for mass transformations of the lowest-performing 5% of schools.
Hess is especially perceptive in diagnosing the predictable failure of Race to the Top (RttT) and School Improvement Grants (SIG). I don’t know how many 500-page RttT applications on a nineteen-item checklist Hess read but he reached the same conclusion that I did after studying many of them. There was no need to read the lyrics when the RttT hit an unmistakable chord. The applications’ words didn’t explicitly forbid the investment of time and money into the aligned and coordinated student supports that would have provided the foundation necessary for increases in meaningful learning. The timeline and the accountability metrics made it inevitable that hurried, in-one-ear-out-the-other, teach-to-the-test would take off.
In his dealings with national reformers, Hess saw what I witnessed on a local level. Reform leaders enthusiastically embraced the RttT even though “many of the folks in charge had – until about five minutes earlier – been eloquent in explaining how bureaucracy had stymied school reform.”  They had sincerely prided themselves on their opposition to red tape and their entrepreneurialism, but they turned on a dime because, “When your buddies go off to war, you go with them.”
Hess then nails the dynamics which, I believe, made the damage done by corporate reform increase during the Obama years, “When foundations and the federal government link arms, disagreeing with the president’s policies is tantamount to attacking the foundation’s agenda – and vice versa.” He then calls for “little-p rather than big-P philanthropy,” more rethinking, and less defending of the agenda of the moment.
Hess also witnessed the rise of the public relations campaigns that grew out of the effort to immediately impose transformative change. It looks to me that Big-R Reform peaked in the early Obama years when teacher-bashing propaganda like Waiting for Superman was dominant. Hess adds telling details about the way Big-R Reformers sought An Inconvenient Truth for school reform. He clearly remembers one PR pro who said the reform message needed to be “simpler, stupider, and snazzier.” At the time, it was argued that reformers were “too thoughtful for their own good.”
 For years, I tried to explain to Democrats who pushed the Big-R Reform agenda that in education it’s the lyrics, not the music that matters but perhaps Hess is better at getting that point across. I would argue that a huge reason for miscommunication is that Big-R Reformers were disgusted by the timidity, the “culture of compliance,” of school systems and they tried to intimidate the education sector into courageousness.
Not understanding the education sector’s culture of powerlessness, as well as a history of “silver bullets” being continually imposed on schools, Big-R Reformers couldn’t understand why systems remained so cautious. This prompted impatient reformers to become even more strident that punishments must always accompany rewards. They seemed to see disincentives as a normative and essential component of policies, and they seemed frustrated that educators focused on the punitive, not the incentives that corporate reformers also helped fund.
The best example of systems focusing on the music and not the lyrics is the predictable manner in which systems responded to value-added teacher evaluations.  When educators encountered the test score growth models, that were inherently biased against teachers in the highest challenge schools, administrators weren’t likely to listen to the words of reformers who presented new teacher evaluations as a means of recruiting and retaining talent in the inner city.
Reformers would explain that the use of “multiple measures” would make value-added scores less inaccurate than other measures. Reformers were reluctant to put estimates of the inaccuracy rate on paper, but I often heard the guess-timate of 5 to 10%. Somehow, Big-R Reformers failed to comprehend that that would mean that inner city teachers, especially, would face that much of a chance per year of having their careers damaged or destroyed by statistical errors. Reformers seemed incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of educators and understanding why systems would profess support for the measures but then “monkey wrench” them so that only 2% or so of teachers would be dismissed.
Rather than refight the big battles where smart people read the same evidence in different ways, I’ll close with a NAEP test score chart cited by reformer Kevin Huffman in support of the contemporary reform movement. I’d argue that Huffman’s evidence makes a powerful case against his approach to school improvement. (Huffman was debating conservative Jay Greene. Once again, this liberal respects the analysis of a conservative reformer more than the neo-liberal or liberal reformers in the debate.)
Huffman’s graphic shows that 4th grade reading rose nearly 20 points from 1996 to 2015. My first reaction is that reform has shown some success in improving math instruction, especially in the early years. That should not be a surprise given the sorry state of math instruction, especially in elementary schools, that I’d always seen as the norm. (Similarly, it should not be a surprise when input-driven reforms, like increasing high-quality tutoring or adding counselors or mentors, raise student performance but that is not evidence in favor of output-driven reform.)
However, reform has largely failed to raise reading scores, especially in the older years. There also is a simpler example of how reformers twist themselves into pretzels in order to view this evidence as supportive of reform.
The first years when NCLB could have started to improve schools would have been around 2002 or 2003. Fourth grade test scores increased more in the seven years before 2003 than they did in the twelve years that followed the law’s accountability system.  In other words, even the subject which produced the law’s greatest success does not provide support for the effectiveness of school reform.
I would argue that the metric which is most important is 8th grade reading, which is the most valuable skill and the most reliable NAEP test given to the older students. (It’s hard to evaluate the reliability of 12th grade tests.) Those reading scores increased about as much in the four years that preceded NCLB as they did in the thirteen years which followed 2002. And the same pattern applies to all of the data that Huffman presented. If anything, NAEP test score growth slowed after NCLB, and often it stopped after the Obama administration put NCLB accountability on steroids.
I would not argue that NAEP scores, alone, prove that reform failed. But clearly NAEP scores don’t provide evidence that output-driven, market-driven reform increased student performance.
Some reformers reply with the idea that an accountability “meteor” hit schools in the late 1990s, so gains that preceded NCLB should be counted as evidence for its effectiveness. I don’t know how, but some smart reformers may see this argument as something other than intellectual dishonesty and/or Alt Truth. But that opens even more cans of worms in terms of why smart people see the same education evidence in very different ways.
And that brings us back to why we need Letters to Young Reformers. The current and new generation of reformers may not find this to be comprehensible, but they need to know that there was a time when teachers were allowed to teach according to their professional judgments and when the economy boomed, student performance increased markedly – more than anything accomplished by the test-driven, competition-approach to increasing student performance.
Gosh, I remember a day when teachers who taught in a meaningful and culturally relevant manner, and treated students as whole human beings, did not have to fear for their jobs for having the temerity to do so. If I go too far down that road, however, I’ll betray myself as even older than Rick Hess.
Finally, somebody needs to write: Letters to a Young Reformer, Obama Loyalist to Obama Loyalist.

A Society that Puts Freedom before Equality will get a high degree of both

April 20, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Want proof- here is how “9/33” charter sectors did on the 2015 NAEP 8th grade math test. First let’s look at middle and high income kids in Arizona and Colorado charters compared to the statewide averages for middle and high income kids:

Whew- would you look at that? I wonder if those AZ and CO charter school kids are getting half the funding per pupil of Massachusetts or not. Yes, right, so back on track here, those above kids are all middle and high-income, so how did low-income students far in these awful, horrible, no-good Wild West anarchist charter schools perform? I’m glad you asked:


Robb: Free Your Mind

April 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb provided an insightful summary of the choice debate overall while commenting on the ESA expansion fight here in the Cactus Patch, but with broad applicability:

….the debate about vouchers isn’t really about money. The argument that vouchers drain district schools of resources has always been a diversion.

Instead, the debate is rooted in different views of the role of government in educating children.

The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.

Voucher supporters believe that the pool should be used to provide the best educational opportunity for each child as determined by their parents. A proportionate share of the common pool should be available irrespective of whether that choice is a district, charter or private school. The focus should be on what is best for each child individually.

Voucher opponents believe that some children should be used by the government as sociological chess pieces. Their access to the common pool should be limited to the schools voucher opponents believe they should be attending, even if their parents believe it is suboptimal.

As Morpheus put it “What is the Matrix? Control.”

In other words, some people view children primarily as funding units for a system that employs a large number of adults. The other side views students as human beings with a huge diversity of needs and aspirations, a large number of which will not be met in a 19th Century Prussian factory model of service provision with a monopoly on the common pool funds. We have very helpfully moved away from this in Arizona, but each new step seems to elicit a fresh burst of misguided outrage. Robb used the term chess pieces, I prefer “funding units” but “copper tops” might be the most apt term:




And the Higgy Goes to… Plato

April 16, 2017

Image result for plato's republic

We had a particularly strong set of Higgy nominees, mostly because things are so awful that the list of those contributing to that awfulness has grown quite long.  In a normal year Joe Biden might make for a fine recipient of the Higgy, given his wild claims, multiple incidents of plagiarism, and grossly inflated status as a respected politician. But Trump makes one pine for the days of ordinarily unimpressive politicians of which Biden may be the archetype.  Kimberlé Crenshaw would also make a worthy recipient of this dishonor for her intellectually lazy and politically disastrous idea of intersectionality.  But these days outrage at the defects of PC is so commonplace that there is little need to pile on.  TIFs are a truly horrible idea that fuel the public corruption of handing tax breaks to favored industries or friends while righteously claiming to be creating jobs.  But the Higgy cannot go to the entire city of Cerritos, California for pioneering this vehicle for Petty Little Dictators since the dishonor really needs to identify an individual.

This year’s Higgy has to go to the “ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga” — Plato — who has provided Petty Little Dictators across the generations the intellectual defense and respectability they crave to lord over others while claiming that reason and science justify their actions.  Greg may well be right that Plato’s Republic should be read as a metaphor for the well-governed soul rather than a proposal for what seems to me to be a nightmarish dystopia.  And he may be right that Plato articulated a more appealing political vision elsewhere, but the fact remains that The Republic — even if it is a common mis-interpretation — is the most horrific political dystopia ever-described.  It puts 1984, Brave New World, and the rash of recent Young Adult dystopias to shame because at least you hear villainous music in your head as you read them.  The Republic is so pernicious because it is completely awful while also being completely righteous.

It is this righteousness that makes Petty Little Dictators so insufferable.  They have complete confidence that they are guided by reason and science.  Anyone who fails to submit is anti-science or motivated by base interests, requiring re-education and denunciation.  It is incredibly painful to acknowledge, but I believe that education reform — an effort to which I have devoted the bulk of my professional life — has been almost completely captured by Petty Little Dictators, including its researchers, advocates, journalists, and practitioners.

I sometimes wonder whether we might have been better off leaving things alone.  I wish I had listened more closely to the great political scientist, Ed Banfield when he warned us of the dangers of “reform.” Instead, we Young Turks in grad school generally dismissed Banfield as the old and out-of-touch emeritus professor whose office had been moved to the basement of Littauer Hall as a sign of his declining relevance.  In fact, Banfield had something more important to teach us than all of the “science” we were learning to fix the world — wisdom.  Unfortunately, I and my ed reform peers were all young and generally lacking in wisdom.  The mystery to me is not that young people in ed reform can be so lacking in wisdom, it is that there seem to be so few grown-ups who have acquired wisdom from hard experience and are able/willing to restrain the next wave from trying to foist their brave new world on all of us.  It is as if even the older ed reformers suffer from some sort of Peter Pan syndrome where they never grow up.  Rick Hess’ new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, is a refreshing exception to this Peter Pan syndrome but his is largely a lonely voice standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”

The damage wrought by Petty Little Dictators is not just in their faux-scientific bossiness, it is in the backlash they generate, which is the essence of Trumpism.  If PLDDers want to impose their will in the name of science, Trumpites dismiss science altogether and focus exclusively on the triumph of their will. As they see it, science, facts, truth are all just a charade to disguise one’s interests, so their interests might as well prevail.  Petty Little Dictators fuel this oddly post-modern rejection of objective evidence by the Trumpites because they behave exactly as the Trumpites think one should behave — imposing their will arbitrarily — even if the PLDDers are simply more self-deceptive than the Trumpites about what they are really doing.

There is an alternative to invoking Science as the club to beat others into submission and advance toward the perfection of human beings or rejecting science altogether — it is called Conservatism.  Unlike the Trumpites, Conservatives believe that there is such a thing as objective reality and give deference to science and reason.  But unlike PLDDers, Conservatives are keenly away of how flawed we all are and do not trust themselves (or anyone else) enough to be the True Guardians of science and run roughshod over everyone else.  They believe people can never be perfected and that it is dangerous to try given our deeply flawed nature.  The best we can do is to preserve the traditions and institutions that hold our flawed nature in check while using science and reason to improve things on the margins.  In short, Conservatives emphasize humility while PLDDers suffer from over-confidence.

It’s true that Plato (via Socrates) displayed much humility in works such as the Meno, emphasizing how little we really know.  Then again William Higinbotham also did much good by contributing to the development of video games.  But Plato is worthy of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award because the damage done by The Republic — even if it is simply by permitting a common misinterpretation — outweighs the good.  Plato joins last year’s winner, Chris Christie, and Jonathan Gruber the year before that.

(edited for typo)

Plato for the Higgy

April 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been reading a few books about Athens over the last few years, which lead to the thought that Plato would be a worthy nominee for the Higgy as the ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga in serving as the inspiration for technocrats for thousands of years.

The fact that we still read Plato would give a sane person pause in questioning a founder of western thought. No one will be reading Ladner 2300 years from now after all. Sanity is overrated however, and so too is Plato. It has been decades since I read the Republic but I recall being of the firm opinion that it was utter nonsense. Philosopher Kings? Shadows on cave walls? Guardian class? What a lot of rubbish…hey look my new copy of the Avengers arrived!


I’ll give this much to Plato- Athens did not exactly have the democracy thing sorted out. Sure there were golden ages, but they tended to be surrounded by demagogues leading the city into catastrophic wars, plagues, periodic oligarchies etc. People who lead Athens through incredible peril- including Themistocles and Cimon- later found themselves exiled from the city through democratic ostracism. Ungrateful Brits threw Churchill out of office at the end of World War II, but at least they didn’t force him out of the country he saved for a decade. The faults of Athenian democracy were too numerous to summarize adequately. Socrates for instance was chosen randomly to preside over the trial of six victorious Athenian admirals who were prevented from recovering the remains of fallen sailors by a storm. The obvious thing to do of course would be to execute the people who just won a decisive victory due to circumstances beyond their control. Socrates was unable to prevent it. Mysteriously wealthy Athenians who had previously borne the expense of paying for warships found non-military related hobbies occupy their time. The later execution of Socrates on the basis of vague nonsense obviously did nothing to endear Athenian democracy to Plato as well.

Plato was borne into Athenian aristocracy, and in fact his father had been a member of an oligarchy that temporarily overthrew Athenian democracy. Given the pandemonium of Athenian politics, one can hardly fault Plato for attempting to dream up improvements. Having said that, the idea of philosopher kings is utterly absurd. A group of materially disinterested ascetics spend decades in study to prepare themselves to govern the rabble with little compensation other than satisfying their benevolence after earning the acceptance of a self-perpetuating ruling class.


Fortunately no one actually tried to run Plato’s society, but there have been some fairly close parallels from time to time. The dead hand of medieval clericalism and various communist parties for instance come to mind as self-perpetuating elites admitting members based upon decades of training in a world view. I don’t know how one gets admitted into, say, Iranian theocracy, but that might more than vaguely resemble a guardian class. If these examples sound like recipes for stagnation and corruption it is only because, well it is in fact a recipe for stagnation and corruption.

Milton Friedman happily set Phil Donahue straight on this back in the 1970s:

Where in the world are you going to find these angels indeed. Athenian democracy was too often a pig’s breakfast of mob rule chaos, but I would take my chances with it over Plato’s benevolent ruling class fantasy.

The part of American democracy that most closely resembles the Plato’s philosopher kings would be the United States Supreme Court. You may have heard of them, they have been in the news a bit lately. Ross Douhat in fact makes an interesting case laying the blame for much of American political dysfunction in recent years at the feet of…wait for it….David Souter:

Had Souter simply voted like a typical Republican appointee — not in lock step with Antonin Scalia, but as an institutionalist, incrementalist conservative, in line with the current chief justice, John Roberts — then it’s likely that Roe v. Wade would have been mostly overturned in the 1990s, returning much of abortion law to the states, and that the gay rights movement would have subsequently advanced through referendums and legislation rather than a sweeping constitutionalization of cultural debate.

This, in turn, would have dramatically lowered the stakes of judicial politics for many Republican voters, making an untimely event like Scalia’s death less of a crisis moment, a response like the Garland pocket veto less of a necessity and the candidacy of Donald Trump something more easily rejected.

Indeed, I strongly suspect that in a world without the Souter own goal — a world where the Supreme Court had sided with cultural conservatives to the extent one would have expected given the number of recent Republican appointees — a nominee like Merrick Garland could still have been confirmed with Republican votes, and the filibuster could still persist, reserved for the unqualified, corrupt and genuinely extreme. Oh, and into the bargain, Donald Trump might well not be president.

Read the whole piece and see what you think. I largely buy the argument. American democracy is designed to force compromises that no one necessarily loves but most can live with. However tempting it may seem to bypass what can be a very frustrating democratic process, it is a very bad idea. Rule by executive, administrative or judicial fiat by “our betters” that Plato longed for at this point has a storied history of backfiring in fashions ranging from the humorous to the absolutely horrific. In the case of Souter, acceptance at Georgetown cocktail parties must have been swell but things may have indeed worked out better if he had felt some sense of democratic duty to the people who elected George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis in a complete rout of an election. Why let a little thing like a mere election get in the way of acceptance into grandee society?

We must empower authorities, but keeping the ability to turn them out of office seems to work better than anything else we have come up with, even if they hadn’t quite figured it out entirely in ancient Athens. For interrupting my vitally important early 1980s activities like Robotron 2084  robot killing and Magnum PI rerun viewing with turgid and misguided baloney and worse still for inspiring would be technocratic ruling classes for well over two millennia, I nominate Plato for the Higgy, it is a shame he wasn’t James Madison.