Choice 60, Default 0 in Southern Arizona National Merit Semifinalist Bowl

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Tucson AZ based Arizona Daily Star put out a story on 60 Southern Arizona students being names National Merit Semifinalists.  The author didn’t seem to notice what I found most interesting about the story.

For a little perspective, Arizona has five or so percent of students attending private schools, around 18% in charters. So about 70-75% of students attend districts.

A quick run down of the list of students and their students however reveals that about 49 out of the 60 National Merit Semifinalists attend choice schools: charters, magnet, private and home schools. Suburban districts and magnets earned all of the district semifinalists. No one attended a non-magnet Tucson Unified high-school, which is the by far the largest school district in the region.

This is usually the part of the conversation where my enthusiastic union affiliated Tucson friends will dust off their talking points about evil charters creaming students, etc. Note however that Arizona law requires random admission lotteries, a law that does not apply to magnet schools. Thus the school most obviously creaming students (read all about it here on their admission page) is University High, a magnet school run by Tucson Unified. University High had more National Merit Semifinalists than any other school, but you know that minimum GPA, admission test and other criteria just might have something to do with that.

Personally I don’t have a huge problem with an occasional magnet school with exclusive admission policies as long as parents keep the place afloat, but I certainly respect the views of those who do. I do however have a huge problem with people running the most blatantly exclusionary school in the state accusing others of doing covertly what they are doing openly without so much as a teaspoon of evidence.

Just as a thought experiment let’s assume for the moment that all of these charter, suburban district, magnet, private and home schools all represent some sort of student creaming conspiracy and this entirely explains their monopoly on National Merit Semifinalists. I don’t for a moment believe this to be the case, but if it were, er, why did the parents of these bright children choose to enroll them in choice schools? After all if you put these same kids in TUSD they would have done just as well right?

I’m guessing no, not so much. Parents know these kids best and have voted with their feet. If you take the position that a house in a well to do suburban district represents a form of parental choice (I do), the final score is Choice 60, Assigned 0 in the Southern Arizona PSAT Bowl. That goose egg represents a looming catastrophe for Arizona’s future btw- as the number of potential National Merit Semifinalists attending TUSD stood vastly larger than either zero or sixty. I have met some incredibly dedicated TUSD educators who practically kill themselves to effectively extend the school year for disadvantaged students. I don’t think that anyone wakes up in the morning, stretches, yawns and enthusiastically drives to work so that they can make sure that kids fail to reach their potential- that’s not how this works imo.

Every system however is perfectly designed to achieve the results it produces. This system needs a reboot.

 

 

 

 

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5 Responses to Choice 60, Default 0 in Southern Arizona National Merit Semifinalist Bowl

  1. Mike G says:

    Generally agree with the thrust of your argument.

    However:

    You write: “After all if you put these same kids in TUSD they would have done just as well right? I’m guessing no, not so much. Parents know these kids best and have voted with their feet.”

    Didn’t MIT’s Josh Angrist actually do this study, looking at exam schools in Boston?

    And study found, er, yes – they did just as well.

    <>

    PSAT is (if I recall) the criterion for National Merit Semifinalist.

  2. Mike G says:

    Oops: It cut my citation. Angrist et al wrote:

    “The outcomes studied here include scores on state standardized achievement tests, PSAT and SAT participation and scores, and AP scores.

    Our estimates show little effect of exam school offers on most students’ achievement. “

  3. matthewladner says:

    MG-

    I’d have to look at the study, but TUSD is er, no Boston.

  4. Mike G says:

    The Elite Illusion: Achievement Effects at Boston and New York Exam Schools

    Note that

    a. Boston district schools are not good –

    b. Same thing was true in NYC.

    These are elite economists, and they found something surprising (at least to me) – that the expected benefits of elite exam admissions schools did not show up.

  5. matthewladner says:

    MG-

    TUDA reveals that Boston scores a point higher on 4th grade reading than the statewide average in Arizona, and TUSD is not an average performing district in AZ, so the scales for “not good” may differ a bit.

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