Baby Baby DARLING You’re the WEST!

October 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I decided to see how the charter sectors of the Top 10 rated charter laws in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools would look in a cohort gain chart compared to the Cactus Patch. The top ten (in order) are Indiana, Colorado, Washington, Minnesota, Alabama, Mississippi, Maine, DC, Florida and Kentucky. The above chart shows 4th grade math and reading scores from 2013, and then 8th grade math and reading scores from 2017-when the 4th grade cohort from 2013 were 8th graders.

Sadly of these states NAEP only reports charter student scores for Colorado, DC, Florida and Minnesota. You have to have a minimum number of students before the NAEP will report scores, and mind you that you can find male Asian scores in some states. It’s a mixed bag with the non-reporting states- some of the laws are old and just not very active in producing “charter schools” (Indiana) and others are young and not very active at producing charter schools (Washington, Alabama, Mississippi, Maine and especially Kentucky). When they do open schools they are going to be AMAZING– as in I’ll have to extend the axis scales on these charts. For now I’ve included them clearly in the above charts as very dark dots. What? Can’t see them? Not to worry just squint hard and use your imagination.

I’m fond of the charter sectors in all of the remaining top 10 states (i.e. the four with actual schools) in different ways. Colorado is a fellow member of the Wild West, Florida is an honorary member, DC charters clearly do better than DC districts despite getting about half of the funding and few of the families with both parents having law degrees, and Minnesota kicked off the charter school movement.

I think that all of these charter sectors have majority minority student populations with the exception of Colorado. I’ll let you decide whether Colorado’s higher 4th grade scores or Arizona larger gains and higher 8th grade scores qualifies as most impressive, but either way darlings you’re the west best!


Nominated for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award: Elizabeth Vandiver

October 22, 2018

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Two of our children attended and later worked at a summer camp in northern Georgia. Getting to and from camp from Northwest Arkansas was particularly costly and inconvenient by airplane, so for more than a decade we drove more than 13 hours each way.

All of this driving, year after year, may sound like a giant pain but actually it was quite wonderful.  Criss-crossing the US reminded us of what a big and beautiful country we live in.  And the forced togetherness provided plenty of opportunity for us to talk and really get to know each other.  I loved it.

But one of the most special things about spending dozens of hours in the car together was being able to listen to Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures on Classical Mythology.  Before we left for each trip we’d go to Fayetteville’s wonderful public library and check out a bunch of audio books.  I happened to stumble upon Prof. Vandiver’s lectures, which are part of the Great Courses series.  I think the first one we heard was her course on the Odyssey, which consists of two dozen 30 minute talks.  We later listened to her courses on the Iliad, Greek Tragedy, the Aeneid, and her overview of Classical Mythology.  In total that is about 60 hours of Vandiver’s lectures.  Mind you, this was spread over a decade in which we drove for more than 260 hours, but listening to Elizabeth Vandiver was a big part of our annual road trips.

I didn’t force these lectures on our kids.  I didn’t have to.  They were captivated by her extremely well-organized and clear discussion of Greek and Roman Mythology.  These are really great stories and Vandiver describes and explains them wonderfully.  Our youngest loved the lectures so much that he jokingly called Vandiver his “girlfriend,” never having seen a photo of her and just from the sound of her voice. Not surprisingly, he is now double-majoring in Classics and Drama, having just completed reading the Aeneid in Latin.

Elizabeth Vandiver is worthy of “The Al” for much more than contributing to our beloved family memories.  Vandiver has made a significant improvement to the human condition by giving lectures that help us understand that condition.  The fact that these stories remain completely recognizable and relevant to us despite the passage of nearly 3,000 years, teaches us something about the enduring qualities of human experience.

We are not, as some of my Progressive colleagues imagine, simply able to use reason and science to re-construct our world with each new generation.  Human beings are not perfectly malleable clay waiting to be shaped by forward-thinking educators and social engineers.  Humans have a certain nature, which classical mythology shows us has remained unchanged.  We would be wise to understand and consider that nature when thinking about building and sustaining the institutions that steer people for good or for ill.  Rather than telling us who they think we should be, as modern educators and pundits seem inclined to do, Vandiver teaches us who we are.  And she does so with a crispness and clarity that makes even young children want to seek out the original materials to learn from them directly.

Of course, Vandiver has been recognized for her excellence as a teacher.  She has won awards from Northwestern and University of Georgia, where she has previously taught, as well as Whitman College, where she is currently a professor.  But those university teaching awards do not have the status and broad recognition that The Al does.  So, for all that Elizabeth Vandiver has done to improve the human condition by teaching countless people about the human condition, I nominate her for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

If you’d like to see some of her fantastic lectures, I’ve found her entire Classical Mythology course on YouTube,  Here is one segment:

Richard Garfield for the “Al”

October 19, 2018

(Guest Post by Ben Ladner)

Editors note: Ben Ladner is a Senior at the Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a nerdy, socially confused teenager looking for a place he can fit in discovers community in a game and the fellow people who are obsessed with it.  I suspect you all know the story – more than one of the regulars here grew up on Dungeons and Dragons.  But while I’ve raided a few bandit hideouts in my time, my story is about a different but no less revolutionary game: Magic: the Gathering.

In the early 1990s, Richard Garfield was an unkempt mathematics post-grad who designed games in his spare time.  He and a friend pitched a board game to Peter Adkison, CEO of Wizards of the Coast, a small gaming company looking for an innovation to sell, but it was too complex for Adkison’s scrappy firm to handle.   Adkison wanted something smaller and simpler, that could be played quickly between rounds at larger conventions.  Garfield told Adkison that he might have something, what he returned with was nothing short of a revolution.

Magic: the Gathering, released in 1993, is a combination of baseball cards and chess.  Cards representing various high-fantasy monsters, arcane spells, and powerful magic items can be collected and traded, but each has play value in a strategic, intellect-based game that pits players and their decks of cards against each other.  Players use their collections to fine-tune their decks in a game world that is ever-changing as regular expansions add new cards to the mix.

Magic was the first game to combine the two previously unrelated concepts, and it has become no less of a paradigm shift in the gaming world than D&D was a generation earlier.  Trading card games are everywhere now, and Magic is still going strong with over 20 million fans.  Its rise coincided with that of the internet, leading to a strong presence there among the players.  Some have become celebrities of sorts, leading the way in the world of e-sports as they compete in professional-level, livestreamed tournaments.  I, for one, care much more about the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour than I do about any mainstream sport.

I am a nerd.  I lead a robotics club at my school, unabashedly cosplay for no reason, and have a map of the Klingon Empire pinned up in my bedroom.  For most teens, this would be a social death sentence, but Magic saved me.  I play in local tournaments whenever I can, and the community of people I have met at these events is no less nerdy or obsessed that I am.  I feel comfortable being me when I’m there.  Among the older players are people I would look up to as mentors and examples.  I, and millions of others, owe Magic an unpayable debt.  It has given us an outlet for our creative energy, a community, and a common bond.

As for Garfield, he pocketed 100 million dollars when the wildly successful Wizards of the Coast was bought by toy giant Hasbro, and moved on with his life.  While he continues to design games, he understands and accepts that he will forever exist in the shadow of his creation.  In his words; “Pretty early on, I realized that trying to make the next Magic only going to make me unhappy.”  Garfield’s later projects, which have seen some success, are made with the same obsessive passion that brought forth Magic, not in some futile attempt to measure up.  That’s not to say Garfield is above continuing to tinker with Magic.  He returns to the game from time to time, and the expansions he helps create, such as 2005’s Ravnica: City of Guilds, the gothic-horror themed Innistrad, released in 2011, and most recently Dominaria this year, are among the most innovative and best-loved by players.

Richard Garfield created something that has made life better for millions of nerds like me.  And he did it because he is just as much a nerd as we are.  He wasn’t in it for money or recognition, though he has received much of both.  He just wanted to make something cool.  For that, he is worthy of the title “humanitarian of the year.”

Arizona Charter Students Aren’t Left Handed Either Part Deux

October 18, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So out riding my bike on the canal this morning I had the idea for a new visualization for cohort NAEP gains. Here’s what it looks like:

So a bit of explanation: the shotgun blast at the lower left part of the chart are 4th grade math and reading scores for states in 2013, with Arizona charter school students included. Arizona charter school students didn’t blow anyone away with their math and reading scores as 4th graders in 2013, but this is in the range of what many would expect from a majority minority school system operating with very modest funding.

Fast forward the clock to 2017 and those kids were 8th graders, which are the shot gun blast of dots on the upper right. Lo and behold, that majority minority student population is **ahem** outscoring states that spend more than twice as much per pupil and have the advantaged end of the achievement gap stick. Arizona charter students pulled this off despite spotting such states a head start in the form of higher 4th grade scores.

Wait…I’m picking up a disturbance in the Force. I can feel you thinking “Ok but students come and go from charter schools and this must explain some of those gains.”

Actually kids do come and go from charters, but to the extent this is happening Arizona charters are sending out kids with higher levels of academic achievement and bringing in kids with lower levels of achievement. From the Center for Student Achievement:

So if numeracy and literacy are an important part of what you are looking for in a school for your child, you might want to move to Arizona. Once here you can consider enrolling your child in one of our pluralistic charter school offerings which focus on everything from the arts to equestrianism to the classics. As far as I can tell, it’s the finest system of public education in the country, and it is available to you free of charge delightfully without a crushing level of taxation. Plus…bring your golf clubs:

Rats Bite Children at Mismanaged Arizona District School

October 16, 2018

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Here’s a story you probably haven’t seen before:

The rodent problem was so bad at Alfred F. Garcia Elementary School in Phoenix, rats bit two students during the last school year.

As horrifying as that was, pest control takes up just one paragraph in a 26-page report detailing a laundry list of troubles in the Murphy Elementary School District.

In an unusual move, the Arizona State Board of Education took over the beleaguered Phoenix district in June because of serious financial issues, primarily a $2.2 million spending deficit. In March, class sizes swelled to more than 40 students in some district classrooms, prompting outrage from parents.

In Arizona, the average district school expenditure per student is nearly $10,000, and the Murphy district serves about 1,500 students. So where did all the money go?

The receiver also found “numerous” instances of wasteful spending, detailed in the report.

In one case, materials for a $500,000 curriculum sat unused in a classroom while Murphy spent $173,000 on a different curriculum. A curriculum details what students study day to day and how those lessons are taught. They often come with teaching materials to assist educators.

The unused curriculum at Murphy included textbooks, workbooks and other materials like science lab kits, Anderson wrote.

The classroom holding the materials also sat unused, save for as a storage space for the half-million dollar curriculum. The receiver sold some of the curriculum to recoup some of the lost money and opened up the classroom for future teaching uses.

“What I was most alarmed at was the degree of how mismanaged the district was,” Donofrio said after reading the receiver’s report. “I know a lot of people are kind of upset by the report.”

Other instances of financial mismanagement detailed in the report include:

  • Arizona Cardinals staff suspected that tickets left at district offices for Cardinals and Diamondbacks games were sold online by staffers instead of actually being used by students and educators to attend games, Anderson wrote.
  • Twelve district employees were issued a $4,500 stipend for “official use of their personal vehicles, whether or not travel between schools is required for their jobs.” It’s unclear if the stipend was annual.
  • The report notes a $12,000 performance bonus that then-superintendent Jose Diaz was awarded “in spite of declining student performance, decreased enrollment, and overspending at the district level.” Diaz retired from Murphy in February. 
  • The district spent thousands every month on cell phone plans.
  • Murphy didn’t reduce the number of administrative staffers even as student enrollment declined.
  • A company charged with maintaining the district’s HVAC system was not actually doing basic monthly maintenance checks under an $85,000 contract. The receiver terminated the contract after an investigation.

I highly suggest reading the full article. The district was spending $800 more per pupil in administrative costs than the state average. When confronted by angry teachers and parents, how much do you want to bet that the incompetent (and possibly corrupt) administrators pointing fingers at the state for supposedly not giving them enough money?

Clearly, a quality education requires a significant investment. But more money won’t solve the problems of districts like Murphy.


Narrow STEM Focus In Schools May Hurt Long-Term

October 16, 2018

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Education policy leaders have been obsessed with STEM for many years now.  They note the relatively high salaries of students who complete school with STEM skills.  And industry leaders repeatedly complain about the chronic shortages of skilled workers in technical fields.  If only our schools could produce more graduates with these technical skills, we could help address industry’s needs as well as launch students into lucrative careers.

Huge investments have been made to steer students into STEM fields.  Philanthropists have backed coding camps and embraced STEM-focused charters.  And policymakers have poured millions into expanding STEM programs in public schools and universities.  Arkansas has gone as far as requiring that every public and charter high school offer a computer science course so that all students can learn to code.

A fascinating recent paper by David Deming and Kadeem Noray, however, suggests that the payoff to students for pursuing STEM may be short-lived.  STEM workers initially experience elevated salaries and rates of employment, but the skills their occupations require change so rapidly that their training quickly becomes obsolete.  While most workers in other occupations tend to experience a significant rise in earnings as experience enhances their skills, STEM workers tend to have flatter career earning trajectories. As Deming and Noray put it:

We show that the economic payoff to majoring in applied STEM fields such as engineering and computer science is initially very high, but declines by more than 50 percent in the first decade after college. STEM majors have flatter age-earnings profiles than college graduates who major in other subjects, even after controlling for cognitive ability and other important determinants of earnings.

Like professional athletes or movie stars, STEM workers may make a lot of money right out of the gate, but their prospects fade quickly.  If they don’t have non-technical skills to make the transition into management or other occupations, they may suffer the fate of former athletes who couldn’t get an analyst gig or aging actresses who aren’t Meryl Streep.  It’s ironic that the same kinds of education pundits who cluck about how irresponsible it is to offer sports and theater opportunities to students for fear of encouraging them into such high-risk and short-lived careers remain blissfully unaware of the similar (albeit much less severe) career dynamics in many STEM fields.

And as to those severe labor shortages that the tech industry complains about, Deming and Noray say: “Faster technological progress creates a greater sense of shortage, but it is the new STEM skills that are scarce, not the workers themselves.” Tech companies are laying off older workers with slightly older skill sets at the same time that they are starving for new workers with the latest training.  If tech companies want to solve their shortage problem they may need to look in the mirror rather than expect the education system to fix this entirely for them.  They may need to invest more in retraining older workers to keep their skills current.  Or they may need to increase the pay premium for starting workers enough to entice more to take the risks of having a short-lived lucrative career.

While schools still need to do much to improve their efforts in math and science, they should avoid narrowing their focus too much on STEM.  Doing so may serve industry’s insatiable appetite for new, skilled workers, but it may do a long-term dis-service to their students who need a broader set of skills to prosper over their entire working careers (let alone cheating them of the broader education they need to be more enlightened human beings).

Scottsdale Unified Needs an Appetite for Disruption

October 16, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Update from the Arizona Republic on Scottsdale Unified enrollment trends. I am a SUSD taxpayer and have taken a look at SUSD from time to time as a microcosm of how school choice programs interact. Scottsdale faces a good deal of competition from charters and to a lesser degree private schools, and also has been unusually open to open enrollment transfers for a fancy district.

So first the good news: SUSD academic performance continued to improve with the release of the 2018 AZMerit scores:

A previous district sponsored study found that the top issue identified by families living in the Scottsdale district but sending their students elsewhere was “academic rigor.” This seems to be trending in the right direction.

Now for the not so good news: as touched upon in the Republic story: looking past scandals, investigations and resignations the district has a very large amount of empty space and declining enrollment. The district also has up to $229,000,000 to spend on facilities, a source of said scandals, investigations and resignations. District enrollment is down 4,800 from the peak in 2002 and trending down. A 2012 Auditor General report found the district utilizing only 65% of capacity and the projections are for still lower enrollment. $229m is a lot of money to spend on a 22,000 and falling enrollment count and district leaders should ponder long and hard the factors that influence enrollment decisions, such as those revealed by their previous survey (“lack of academic rigor” is not easily mistranslated into “building not spiffy.”)

The Republic article details an agonizing set of choices facing the Scottsdale Unified board- spending money on facilities with declining enrollment runs the risk of needing to close the facility regardless at some future point. Without increased enrollment, closures will become inevitable. Communities don’t react well to school closures, but Scottsdale parents have been voting with their feet. A potential best strategy going forward was reported on in the Republic story:

Board member Kim Hartmann challenged the board to think about ways schools can improve to make them more desirable.

Hartmann called attention to Cheyenne Traditional School, with 955 students, which has high AzMERIT scores and has captured students from outside the district through open enrollment.

Scottsdale Unified has enough empty space to open a dozen or more Cheyenne Traditional Schools, or (better yet) a mix of other specialized programs. Who should decide which Scottsdale Unified campuses should remain open? Why not leave the decision up to parents? If the district can give more parents what they are looking for, fewer campuses will need to close-expand rather than shrink the pie. Why not give the opportunity for declining enrollment SUSD schools to specialize? Why not co-locate micro-school concepts in half empty campuses? Why not lease empty space to charter school operators to generate revenue?

The best Arizona districts are not sweating competition-they are beating it with a club. There will always be a Scottsdale Unified, however it do well to adapt to a new era and seize the opportunities afforded by it. SUSD has the potential to produce higher levels of parental satisfaction and student achievement by increasing the diversity of approaches to education. If the SUSD board would like to avoid endless hours of painful and emotional hearings on school closures (and who wouldn’t?) they would do well to delegate the decision on which campuses to close to Scottsdale parents and educators, who just might choose “none of the above.” The board should imo give educators the opportunity to specialize their schools and seek new enrollment, and create a minimum enrollment/space standard for closure. Let parents sort out the rest.