Tell me, friend, when did a bipartisan super-majority abandon reason for madness?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So welcome back from your Independence Day holiday break, glad you are still ready to get your wonk on, so let’s talk a little academic transparency. The forces of light and darkness are on the march in this Middle Earth.

A few months ago I had the chance to meet with Bill Jackson from Greatschools here in Phoenix. At that meeting Bill told me something I’ve been trying to wrap my head around ever since- that more than half of parents visited Greatschools last year.

My instant reaction was to pick my jaw off the table and then mumble incoherently about probably far less than that percentage of parents had visited the Arizona Department of Education website ever, and of those that did only some unknown fraction did so to learn information about particular schools.

So then I decided to compare the Great Schools rating system with that of the state of Arizona on schools in my neighborhood. I started with Arcadia High. Arcadia High is a large high school south of Camelback Mountain. You may have heard of a prominent former student by the name of Spielberg- local legend has it that the architecture of the school inspired the space ship design in Close Encounters. The NCES put their FRL % at about half the statewide average at 25% back in 2010.

Great Schools gives Arcadia High a 7 out of 10, while easy grading Arizona gives it an “A” grade. So Greatschools essentially gave the school a C-minus, while the state of Arizona gave it an A. Which one is more accurate? Well one can never be certain (the same school can work very differently for different kids) but the Arizona Board of Regents tracked the academic progress of the entire public school Class of 2006 and found that 39% of the Arcadia High cohort finished a four-year degree within a six-year window.

Hmm, if 39% = “A” then what does a “B” look like? Well Shadow Mountain High School, near where I used to live a few years ago, got a “B” from the state, but saw 29.7% of their Class of 2006 get a BA in six years. The more discerning Greatschools ranking system gave the school a 6 out of 10 rating, which one can reasonably translate to “D-minus” and which seems to fit much more comfortably with the school’s higher education outcomes.

I could go on beating this horse into horseburger, but it misses the point. The (main) point is not that Arizona’s grading system needs a lot of work- although it clearly does- but rather that Greatschools provides an invaluable public service by providing a more rigorous ranking system. In addition, Greatschools also provides a source for student, parent and teacher reviews of schools. Mike McShane cited research showing that parents rate this reviews highly in their decision-making (see page three). This makes it all the better that Greatschools gets more traffic than the state website- it has more of the information they desire. It’s worth noting that the state of Arizona recently took a couple of year time out on school grades as they transition to a new state test. There is precedent for this, as the Arizona Department of Education just stopped publishing school report cards for several years within the last decade. Fortunately Bill Jackson and company have no need for timeouts, and parents are frequenting his website anyway.

Greatschools is performing a very valuable service in a fashion clearly superior to that provided by my state government-may God and His Angels bless Bill Jackson and all of his descendants. Greatschools gives highly valuable information to parents for free in helping them make difficult education decisions here in Arizona, and elsewhere. Greatschools however must make use of public data, and therein lies a growing threat to this invaluable parental choice resource.

It is with great sadness that news has reached my ears that an Arizona Congressman plans to offer an amendment to the ESEA reauthorization bill that would fundamentally undermine Greatschool’s ability to provide comparable data between schools for consideration by parents. The amendment would create a parental opt-out of testing. This would create what seems like a fatal blow to data comparability between schools, and a rather powerful perverse incentive for schools to nudge their weaker students to “opt-out.” Parents and researchers would have little to no way of knowing the rates of strategic “opting out” and thus compatibility between schools would be utterly compromised.

In the midst of anti-testing hysteria being fanned by the unions (the NEA for instance has model opt-out legislation) and others I fear this amendment will in fact pass. I had a front row seat to watch Texas dispatch a 30+ year bipartisan consensus in favor of testing and transparency in a distressingly casual fashion. If it can happen in Austin, it can happen anywhere.

Yes you can argue the federal government should have no role at all in financing schools and/or bossing them around. So why should you care? Notice however that the option of getting the feds out of the schooling business will not be seriously considered anywhere in the process. The federal government will still be sending money, will still be bossing schools around, but just would not get data reliable enough for Greatschools to even pull an Arizona-style rescue manoeuvre, or to consider student learning gains in making more rational retention and tenure decisions. In other words, federal policy will have been entirely captured by adult interests- funding will continue to flow, but transparency will suffer a train wreck.

In fact, if Congress were to pass a law with a parental opt-out, it doesn’t take a very active imagination to foresee a veto by President Obama. If you lead with your chin you should expect your opponent to break your jaw. A veto would allow Secretary Duncan to complete the last two years of rule by lawless administrative fiat in technocratic peace. Some of the latest waivers, by the way, have already stretched into the term of the next administration. They’ve already done waivers for states and districts- why not have the Department of Education hire some seasonal workers and offer waivers to individual schools if they are willing to pant, beg and roll over as commanded? Congress may lack the seriousness to actually put a stop to it.

Jay will argue that reformers brought this down on themselves with naive overreach. If the House votes to kill academic transparency it should indeed be a cause for education reformers to stare long and hard in the mirror. They won’t however be alone. The broad bipartisan consensus that created some level of academic transparency in return for federal funding and bossiness, warts and all, had a better idea than our contemporaries who would provide federal funding and bossiness in return for approximately nothing.

Who can stand against the union of the two towers, when far-left meets far-right at far-gone? Any chance Bill Jackson can take a long hike and throw the One Ring into the lava of Mount Doom?






18 Responses to Tell me, friend, when did a bipartisan super-majority abandon reason for madness?

  1. Our children are in a Greatschools 3 school, the Idaho Virtual Academy. Turns out that’s exactly where we want them. I’m NOT saying the way the money currently flows is any way to run a railroad, but If it gets turned off because of low test scores, that helps my family and many others not at all.

    Parents may be looking at Greatschools, but how do you know the ranking is their deciding factor? Maybe it’s the reviews, which in our school’s case say “this school is what one makes of it.” That’s been our experience over the last 13 years.

    If the building is safe and the staff passes background checks, then all schools of choice should stay open because parents choose them. Period.

  2. matthewladner says:

    I don’t know what was the deciding factor, although the research linked to that Mike McShane referenced shows that parents weight both school ratings and parent reviews. The point I was trying to make in my admittedly garbled fashion was that an opt-out of testing will make all academic ratings, even those rescued from state government haplessness like in Arizona, unreliable. We are hoping to get a measure of how much the students know, not of how skilled the staff was at soliciting opt outs from under performing students.

    The question of whether and under what circumstances state authorities might want to close a school based upon test scores is an important debate, but not one that I meant to touch upon. My concern here is the undermining of the transparency tools that parents use to match their students to schools.

    • I appreciate factual transparency, but the truth is people feel better when they make a decision that is okey-dokey with their peers. I would wager that the number one school choice factor is folks’ friends. Everyone wants to be like everyone else. #comfy

      • matthewladner says:

        That could very well be the case, but does it make federal mandates for testing that will make data inherently unreliable a good idea? Peer opinions ultimately avail themselves to factual information as well.

  3. Leslie Hiner says:

    When I removed my children from a public school and sent them to a private school, I did not look at the school’s test score ranking until after I had enrolled my children in the private school; and then, I looked at the school’s test score ranking because, as a lawyer and informed education reformer, I thought I “should”. As a parent, I couldn’t have cared less about the school’s test score ranking. As a parent, the only thing that mattered was my gut instinct that the teachers and adults at the new school would create an environment where my children could succeed, with joy, in an environment that was consistent with our family’s view of the world; this has absolutely nothing to do with how well a school is producing an average test score that seems to be good. If my kids were still in school, I would opt-out them out of government mandated crappy testing and take them to Sylvan once a year for a real test of their growth in learning.

    • matthewladner says:

      I’m glad that worked out for you, and I agree that there are real issues with state testing that ought to be addressed. For instance, the amount of teaching to test items here in my state is absolutely absurd, and I for the life of me cannot understand why they take as much time to give a simple multiple choice test as I took to take three sets of comprehensive essay exams as a part of a Doctoral program. It is completely absurd in my view.

      Having said all of that, it is also completely absurd for the federal government to even consider mandating testing in a fashion guaranteed to result in data that cannot be remotely reliably compared. I can certainly see why Randi Weingarten might be happy with that outcome, but I can’t see why anyone else would be.

      • Leslie Hiner says:

        Federally mandated testing is a monstrous idea, regardless whether it’s a total monster or a monster missing some parts. Forcing my child to participate in this phony business will not help my child in any way, and will not make federally mandated testing a better monster. If you want to know whether a school is doing well or not, walk in the door and take a look.

      • What Leslie says. 🙂

      • matthewladner says:

        So I’m curious is it the “federal” or the “testing” that makes the testing monstrous? Most states had already created testing before NCLB- were those monsters as well?

        I’ve written many times on this blog that Arizona’s AIMS test (which predated NCLB) jumped the shark with over-exposed test items and dummied down cut scores, but the blame for that rests squarely with Arizona officials.

      • Leslie Hiner says:

        First objection: federal coercion/control/intrusion/mandate/crap; do we really need even more opportunities to get education wrong? Second objection: testing controlled by state (or federal govt), ostensibly to measure schools, resulting in little more than something else to complain about/use as a tool to beg for more money/use to falsely proclaim that a “good” school matters more than a well-educated child (those last two things sometimes align, but when they do not, it’s the child who gets lost in the shadows behind the praise we heap on the “good” school). Personally, I liked the NWEA MAP test that we used at my charter school; it was a good tool for teachers, to diagnose whether each student’s learning was progressing appropriately, with opportunity to make corrections during the school year, if necessary. That worked for the students in our school, but I would not suggest that government should mandate this for every school because, really, one size never fits all.

      • matthewladner says:

        So when the amendment comes up, the choice facing members will be a) continue to mandate testing that remains comparable at the campus level and can be used by Greatschools to create a valuable parental choice resource used by millions every year that largely mitigates the deficiencies of state accountability systems as demonstrated with AZ data in the post OR b) continue to mandate testing but do it in such a way that destroys comparability between campuses and creates a powerful incentive for schools to strategically nudge low-performing students to “opt-out” of testing or gives Arne Duncan two more years to rule as waiver king after the President blasts Congressional Republicans for being totally tone deaf in creating said perverse incentive.

        While I do believe there are real problems with standardized testing, there is no scenario where you would catch me voting for option b.

      • “While I do believe there are real problems with standardized testing, there is no scenario where you would catch me voting for option b.”

        Sorry but parents have few options to resist this Federal take over of what has been happening in the classroom under Arne Duncan’s rule. Perhaps if Arne had instituted reasonable actions and/or had passed on extortion and bullying this upheaval would not have been needed.

      • Leslie Hiner says:

        A Sophie’s Choice, indeed. Wonder who will vote ‘yes’ on the amendment to allow opt-out, and ‘no’ on the bill. If we were senators, perhaps we could claim conflict of interest and duck out for a beverage 🙂 This battle will be fought again another day.

      • matthewladner says:

        Gagh! If you make M. Streep references it will give Greg the opportunity to claim Oscar scoreboard for that Cake-Eater U, er, I mean Yale.

      • matthewladner says:


        I occasionally have cause to remind folks here in JPGBistan that Oklahoma voted to drop CC and approximately nothing happened to them as a result. This seems like another appropriate time to mention that fact, and that every other state that has adopted CC is free to change their standards if they wish. Washington also dropped their waiver relatively casually without causing riots on the streets of Seattle and to the consternation of few.

        Duncan has in short been bluffing with a weak hand.

  4. Hey don’t forget about “rate my professor” a valuable service to check before selecting a college class.

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