Add a Little Salt

March 20, 2009

(Guest Post by Jonathan Butcher)

Last week, a South Carolina education blog called “The Voice for School Choice” posted links to an article on the worst schools in the U.S.  South Carolinians should be particularly irked with the article because 11 SC schools made the top 25.  All is not what it seems, though; below is a touch of salt to be added to the results of this article (“25 Worst Performing Public Schools in the U.S.”).  At issue is not the intelligence of the authors nor their ability; however, they make very strong claims as to the significance of their findings, and readers should be aware of the foundation on which the authors make these claims regarding student achievement.

“Worst Schools” was composed by a website called “Neighborhood Scout” and published on a financial blog operated by AOL called “WalletPop.”  Neighborhood Scout specializes in “nationwide relocation software, retail site selection, and real estate investment advertising.”  They are not an academic department at a university nor a policy research institution, and their founders do not have backgrounds in education or education policy research.  The founders’ specialty is geography, computer mapping and web design (there is no evidence that the authors are different from those described on Neighborhood Scout’s web page).

Neighborhood Scout created their own methodology for the “Worst Schools” article.  They subtracted the percentage of students who “passed” NAEP in a particular state (I am assuming they mean students who scored at proficient or above—though it could mean basic or above) from the “average percentage” of students in the same state who scored at the proficient or advanced level on the state’s mandatory test.  Their objective was to find schools in states where there is a large difference between the percentage of students proficient on a state test and the percent proficient on NAEP in order to make judgments about the difficulty (or lack thereof) of a state test.  The article does not compare similar student populations—as does NAEP—or at the least this methodology section does not indicate such disaggregation.

Of note is that the study gives no indication of being peer-reviewed, and peer-review is a robustness check even among research reports not submitted to journals.  In addition, the study is a snapshot of test scores.  It does not take into account improvement over time, student population changes, or compare scores to some baseline indicator.  For example, in the past three years, 6th graders at W.A. Perry (one of the SC schools in the bottom 25) have gone from 48% meeting or exceeding state standards in math to 66%.  They are still below the state average, but more students are meeting or exceeding state standards now than three years ago.  Similar results can be found in English/Language Arts. 

Admittedly, W.A. Perry’s 6th graders’ scores are below the state average; however, they are making progress.  My aim is not to defend schools that may be low-performing, but a snapshot of a school’s test scores at one point in time does not a failing school make.  NCLB agrees with me, as a school must be in need of improvement for three years before significant intervention takes place.

Additionally, no indication is given by the article as to the student populations served at these schools.  For example, Milwaukee Spectrum School (#25) has a total population of 90 at-risk students who had a record of truancy at other schools.  The school is often a last stop for students ready to drop out of high school all together.  Of course the school is struggling; it is intended to serve struggling students.

In the article, different grades are represented for each school.  For example, high schools are not compared to high schools, but to elementary, middle, and high schools.  This presents a problem because the trend in NAEP (generally) is that more elementary students score proficient than middle school students, and more middle school students score proficient than high school students (this is true across subjects).    

Further, scores are not reported for every grade in every subject.  So a high school with low-scoring 11th graders may be on the “Worst Schools” list right before a middle school who has low-scoring 8th graders but a class of 6th graders with scores closer to a state’s average. 

In the end, of course, readers will decide if this list of worst performing schools is convincing.  However, before sinking your teeth in, take the article with a grain of salt.

Moe and Peterson on DC Vouchers

March 19, 2009

Please Ignore the Huge Pile of Payola Behind the Curtain

March 18, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times turned in a must read article on Arizona State University President Michael Crow:

He quickly made a name for himself, increasing enrollment by nearly a third to 67,000 students, luring big-name professors and starting interdisciplinary schools in areas like sustainability, projects with partners like the Mayo Clinic and Sichuan University in China, and dozens of new degree programs

But this year, Mr. Crow’s plans have crashed into new budget realities, raising questions about how many public research universities the nation needs and whether universities like Arizona State, in their drive to become prominent research institutions, have lost focus on their public mission to provide solid undergraduate education for state residents.

I love the way the term “quality” is used by Dr. Crow. Maybe it is just me, but it certainly appears to me that ASU has been seeking to create the appearance of quality more than the reality. As JPGB readers will recall, ASU’s four year graduation rate is 28%, lowest among the peer institutions as identified by the Education Trust.

Case in point, National Merit Scholars- ASU has a lot of them. But **ahem** there is a little problem identified by the New York Times:

Arizona State University recruits National Merit Scholars nationwide with a four-year $90,000 scholarship, a package so generous that Arizona State enrolls 600 National Merit Scholars, more than Yale or Stanford. Through the cuts, Mr. Crow has kept that program, even while proposing to cut a scholarship for Arizona residents with high scores on state tests, a proposal the state regents turned down.

In their promotional materials, ASU boasts of the number of National Merit Scholars they enroll, but doesn’t bother to mention the obscenely large bribe offered in order to get those National Merit Scholars. If I wanted to be cruel, I’d compare this package to another university and…

Okay, so I’m cruel: the Education Trust identified the University of Indiana Bloomington as the highest performing peer institution for Arizona State based on 4 year graduation rates (over 50% for IU). Last year, their National Merit Scholars had an average package worth $13,609 each.

For some reason, ASU feels compelled to offer almost seven times as much as IU. Maybe the weather is just better in Indiana. Oh wait, you don’t have to hang around at ASU in the summer, so it can’t be the weather.

Well, um, some people don’t like palm trees…

School Boards and the Media

March 18, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’ve argued before, against federalism cops and state-level ed reformers alike, that the biggest monkey wrench in the government school system is the local school board. The union demands that do the biggest damage to children – the uniform, performance-blind pay scale and the extraordinary obstacles to firing bad teachers – are enforced at that level. And while higher levels of government set the broad budget outlines, it’s the school boards that manage the budgets at the detail level – making them the primary people to blame for the tremendous wastefulness and zero accountability of the system.

And (as I argued to the federalism cops) that’s what we should expect, because local power is structurally more susceptible to these problems than state or federal power. If you run a scam at a high level, the scam is big and that means the suckers (that’s you and me) are more likely to 1) notice and 2) be willing to pay the price to stop it. But if, like the unions, you have your tentacles in thousands of tiny little school districts across the country, you can steal a little here and a little there and end up with a much bigger pile of swag, all while flying under the radar.

Well, yesterday Mark Steyn posted on NRO’s Corner about his experience serving on a school board subcommittee. Two stories he told got me thinking about a new aspect of the school board problem.

Story #1:

After one somewhat difficult meeting, I got back to find a telephone message from the reporter at the local paper: “Hi, Mark. I couldn’t make School Board but I have to file my story this evening. Did anything happen that I need to know about?”

Happily, no. And her non-attendance proved no obstacle to filing a bland happy-face report on the event.

Story #2 (the subcommittee was negotiating with a nearby town to build a joint high school):

On another occasion, I absentmindedly forgot it was a public meeting and launched a blistering attack on a neighboring town. As the evening ended, the nice lady reporter said to me, “Don’t worry, Mark. I won’t put any of those controversial things you said in the paper.”

School boards get a free ride from the relevant media. The broadcast media don’t have time to cover them – they’re too busy with more important stories, like whoever is the new Brangelina this week. And the local papers are at best too lazy to do their jobs (note that in Story #1 it was a “difficult meeting” about which the reporter filed a “bland happy-face report”) and at worst too cozy with the board members – who are, after all, the reporters’ neighbors and pillars of their communities – to report a big story even when it bites them right in their assignments.

Izumi’s Video Op-Ed in the New York Times: Vouchers in Sweden

March 16, 2009

Good stuff-Check it out.

The Charter/Voucher Extended Dance Remix

March 16, 2009

My post last week on why supporters of charter schools don’t also support vouchers generated a large amount of discussion.  Here are some tidbits on the same topic:

First, Doug Tuthill, the former teacher union leader and now head of Florida’s choice advocacy group, Step Up For Students, emailed me to say:

In Florida we have adopted the same approach to charters and vouchers you advocated in your recent exchange with Andy Rotherham.  Given the idealized status of “public education” in our culture, getting into a public versus private school debate is a losing proposition.  Therefore we argue that  publicly-funded private schools are part of our public education system and the real issue is how best to regulate all publicly-funded education.   Our approach is aided by the reality that public education in Florida is expanding to incorporate a variety of publicly-funded private providers.  Many of the state’s best secondary magnet programs are run by private providers (my favorites are two aeronautic magnet programs run by Embry-Riddle University in Okaloosa County), the K-5 portion of our state online school, the Florida Virtual School, is run by a private provider, the overwhelming majority of our charter schools are run by private providers, and of course all the schools providing services through the McKay and Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships are private providers.  To arbitrarily label some of these public-private partnerships as “voucher” programs and therefore suggest they are bad is nonsensical.  The goodness or badness of any publicly-funded education program should be determined by its effectiveness and efficiency, not by how it is labeled.


Andy and President Obama, among others, are caught in the old “public-versus-private-school” paradigm, which is why they support “charters” but not “vouchers.”    But as you pointed out in your exchange with Andy, this is an illogical distinction unless one is stuck in the “public is good, private is bad” mindset and possesses a myopic view of what constitutes public and private. 


And here is an interesting item about how Orthodox Jewish groups have come out against secular charter schools as a substitute for a Jewish education.  The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School in Florida focuses on Hebrew language and Jewish history but has no religious instruction.  And it is drawing students away from Jewish private schools in part because the charter is free to students while the private schools have to charge tuition.  The huge expansion in charter schools may be posing an even greater competitive threat to established private schools than to traditional public schools.


Leaders of the Orthodox movement recognize this threat to their efforts to focus on religious instruction.  A spokesman for the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, commented: “We are not pro-charter schools. They are not replacements for a yeshiva education, and anyone who can imagine they could be are fooling themselves… There is no end around the fact that Jewish education is a Jewish education and that can only happen in a Jewish institution with a Jewish curriculum. And because our nation does not permit religious instruction in public schools, there is no way to avoid the need that Jewish parents have for yeshivas.” 

Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Cover Songs

March 15, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mrs. Ladner has the kiddos off in the Land of Enchantment visiting their relatives on spring break. Rather than sit around in my boxers piling up pizza boxes and watching tons of NCAA basketball (NOT that there is anything wrong with that!) I am out of town myself, in the Raven, a great coffee bar in Prescott Arizona.

So as long as I’m here, chugging cafe mocha, I may as well blog, so here is a random subject for you: cover songs. I love cover songs. Cover songs are recordings made by one artist that were previously made popular by another artist. For reasons that I’ll try to figure out as I write this, I tend to like a much higher percentage of cover songs. Perhaps it is simply because nostalgia, not gravity, is the most powerful force in the universe. Perhaps it is something more than that, however.

Back in the day, there were songs that were “the standards”and you were judged as a performer based on how well you sang them. More than that, how entertaining you managed to make them.

Needless to say, people sitting around singing the same songs all the time would get boring. There is a reason however that certain songs achieve standard status-there’s something special about them.

My favorite thing about a good cover song is that an artist or producer have recognized something special about a song, even if it isn’t obvious. I remember watching the VH1 Behind the Music on Rod Stewart. Rod had hit a lull in his career, and a producer called him. The producer told Rod that he was a pretty good singer of pretty good songs, but a great singer of great songs. Rod’s next question was classic:

Do you have a great song for me?”

From this came Stewart’s cover of Tom Wait’s Downtown Train. Here is the original:

And here is what the now great again Rod Stewart did with the song.

I think it’s great that Waits wrote the song, but I can’t say I ever need to hear his rendition again. Stewart said something to the effect of “Tom didn’t know there was so much soul in that song, but there was.” Stewart went on to make a fortune with a series of cds of- you guessed it- the standards.

Here’s another great example: Overkill by Men at Work. The original:

I kind of liked that song back in 1983, but I liked the 1996 cover by Lazlo Bane and Colin Hay much, much better:

My favorite sub-genre of cover songs is the ironic cover song. Here is the Carpenters singing their song Superstar:

Now, here is perhaps the greatest of all cover bands, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes version of the same song from their hilarious cd Ruin Jonny’s Bar Mitzvah. MFATGG is a side project which draws members from several different punk bands to do punk rock covers.

Now of course there are plenty of bad and awful covers, but generally, I like a higher percentage of covers than average. I think the reasons are fairly simple: nostalgia, but also a double quality screen. For the marketing of a typical song, someone is hoping that enough people will like it to buy it. If no one does, you probably never hear of it anyway, or ignore it if you do.

This applies to cover songs as well, but in addition someone has seen something in the song, or a way to put an entertaining twist on it. If it isn’t any good, the paragraph immediately above still applies, but if done well the cover starts with good material but benefits from a new twist and from the nostalgia factor.

So if you know of a cool cover that I’ve probably never heard, post a link in the comment section. It’s time for me to get an espresso.


Happy Pi Day

March 14, 2009

Saudi Arabia versus al Qaeda

March 12, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Must read article by Stratafor.

You can’t handle the truth!

March 12, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A Few Good Men was a good movie that could have been a great movie. On the good side, no romance between Demi Moore and Tom Cruise, and very well done court room drama. On the bad side, the director had to make sure that we understood that Jack Nicholson’s character was the bad guy by having him make crude remarks to Demi Moore. It was like a 30 second summary of Titanic where Leo’s arrogant rival tells Kate Winslet “I’m going to slap you now so that the audience will understand that I’m the bad guy.”

My favorite part of that summary by the way was the meeting between Leo and Kate’ s characters. Leonardo says “I’m pretty!” Kate says “I’m pretty too!” Leo responds “Yes, you are pretty, but not as pretty as me.”

But I digress.

Out here among the cacti, we have a pervasive myth that Arizona public schools are desperately underfunded to the tune of $6,500 per pupil. After the officials report this hideous number to the NCES, then comes the claim that Arizona is ranked 49th in per capita spending. This however is an exercise in issue framing.

As it turns out, Arizona has plenty of company in claiming to be 49th in spending. Another problem- when you take the total amount of revenue and divide it by the total number of students, you get a figure of $9,707 per pupil. Strange- a more than $3,000 per pupil difference…

Now the Arizona legislature’s Joint Legislative Budget Board has produced a document regarding expenditure per pupil in the state. Curiouser and curiouser, but it gives a figure of $9,399 per student for the year before the revenue per pupil figure of $9,707.

I had previously said that this meant that Arizona was not 49th, but somewhere in the middle. An ongoing discussion with a progressive blogger in Arizona, however, has led me to realize that I have little confidence in any state’s spending numbers, other than those of Texas, which can easily be double checked.

Jay successfully pushed a method for calculating dropout rates that looked at the size of a student cohort over time. Perhaps we need to do something similar for spending per pupil figures. Let’s keep it simple: add up all the spending, divide by the number of students.

Otherwise, you get a pig’s breakfast where people down in the basement of state education departments decide this type of funding counts, but this kind of funding doesn’t. Some states report a total number, while others report some interpretation of a spending number as rendered by Bureaucrat X.

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