Education Reform 2003 to 2017: Modest Success/Epic Failure so What’s Next?

July 23, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Having had some time to reflect upon the 2017 NAEP, let’s take stock of things. In this we should keep in mind our broad ignorance between policy changes and state NAEP trends- and the same goes for average school quality. NAEP gives regular 4th and 8th grade scores in math and reading, and all 50 states have participated since 2003. 8th grade scores are more likely to reflect school quality than 4th grade scores in my opinion, as the students have more years of schooling. I’m not sure what to make of positive 4th grade score trends that do not result in higher 8th grade scores for instance. So this in essence a window into what we have to show for American K-12 reform 2003 to 2017 in 8th grade math and reading by state:

So what to make of the above chart? The below chart eliminates a lot of clutter by only including the states with statistically significant gains in both math and reading 2003-2017:


So 19 out of 50 states demonstrate statistically significant gains in both 8th grade math and reading. Notice also the absence in the second chart of mega-states Illinois, New York and Texas (although it is good to see California and Florida making it in). Texas has as many K-12 students as the 20 smallest states combined and annually adds approximately a Wyoming public school system sized number of new students. Florida has half as many students as Texas and California is still larger than Texas.

Since we don’t know the relationship between policy and academic trends, we are limited in the conclusions we can draw with confidence. Having said that, policies that have been broadly applied across all 50 states apparently suffer from severe limitations in their ability to move the needle academically. All 50 states for instance have adopted state academic standards and accountability exams, but most states have failed to move the needle on 8th grade scores. Even if we were feeling incredibly generous and made the wild assumption that none of the second chart gains would have happened in the absence of testing, a failure rate of 62% after 14 years is a far cry from leaving no child behind.

Mike Petrilli and Peter Cunningham recently offered up “where do we go from here” think pieces. I think Mike has some interesting ideas, but Peter’s call for a vast increase in spending is broadly unrealistic imo given the nation’s trillions of dollars in unfunded pension and entitlement liabilities, 10k Baby Boomers per day reaching the age of 65, etc. In normal times, Mike’s incremental adjustments might make a lot of sense, but we don’t live in either normal times, or in times that are going to allow some Great Society on Steroids increase in K-12 spending.

A much more difficult scenario may loom whereby the district system continues to resist reform, reformers continue to push reforms the public does not care for, and severe funding needs for increased health care spending leads to a broad reduction in per pupil spending.  State constitutions guarantee K-12 funding, but whether or not they will be creating schools that the vast majority of parents will continue to entrust with their children, I don’t feel as confident about. There are hopeful signs in the NAEP from state charter sectors:

…but the rate of charter growth has slowed substantially nationwide. Of particular disappointment are the last several state charter laws to pass that produce very few charter schools. Even states with relatively fast growing sectors have large wait lists. There are alas limits to what we can realistically hope for from a charter movement that has to a large degree lost its way by prioritizing cartel behavior over the interests of children on wait lists imo.

The private choice movement enjoyed a strong run earlier in the decade, but has since ran into political headwinds. Many private choice programs exist, but most remain modest in scale. The case for private choice remains as strong as ever, and the need will continue to grow, but the looming state funding crisis is coming fast. In four years, half of the Baby Boom generation will have reached the age of 65, and by 2030 all of them will be there. They have called dibs in advance on all plausible funding increases and a whole lot more.

So what is next? An increasingly likely scenario in my mind is that state district systems retain their flaws but loses a significant part of their funding and that choice systems continue to fail to meet existing much less expanded demand. In such a scenario an increasing percentage of families may decide to fend for themselves. Call them home-schools, home-school co-ops or micro-schools, my spidey-sense tells me that we should expect to see a great many more of them in the years ahead. I’ll write more about this in a follow-up post.

2017 in review

December 29, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So…let’s start with the good news: despite dire predictions of apocalypse, human civilization is still alive and kicking. No global trade wars broke out, the economy shows signs of life. If you google around a bit you can learn things like that the Trump administration is running at about half of the pace for deportations from the Obama administration peak.

That’s all I have to say about that. Ok I take it back-you should also read this. Keep your fingers crossed.

The early days of 2017 looked like the year might be a complete K-12 dumpster fire as (too) much of ed reform world went into a Patty Hearst level of Stockholm Syndrome. The response to the K-12 version of the polarization trap went in the direction of “Gaghghghghgh!!!! The sky is falling!!!!! Quick make something up about Detroit charter schools!”

It should be obvious now that this was overwrought. As it happens 2017 goes into the books as a mixed year on the choice front, contra the fears of DeVosaphobes. Advances in Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin were offset by a setback in Nevada and a cliffhanger in Arizona. The initial drama surrounding the prospect for federal legislation eventually simmered towards an incremental approach sans apocalypse. Kentucky passed a charter school law, but not one likely to produce many charter schools. There are people getting excited for and against the 529 provision, but color me mostly meh. Other provisions of the tax bill may wind up being more significant.

There was a lot of discussion of ESSA plans. I’m not sure why. Perhaps 2018 will see more of the ESSA cottage industry think through the implications of NGO school rating systems. What’s that? Okay I’ll mark my calendar for 2084. Later?!? Fine. Meanwhile approximately 3,650,000 additional Baby Boomers reached the age of 65 in 2017. No one on either side of the aisle in DC seemed to notice. Arguments over inaugural crowd sizes and Russian conspiracy theories took precedence. Excuse me 2018? I’ll have another 3.65m please! Oh and send the check over to the kiddie table.

Perhaps the most encouraging news I heard this year came from the Modern States Project. MSP developed MOOCs and free online textbooks designed to allow students to pass AP/CLEP courses for only the cost of the exam (~$85.) This looks like a straightforward solution to the credit problem, at least in lower level courses and inches the ball closer to free.

The 2017 NAEP will be released in a few months. Election years don’t usually serve as the setting for broad K-12 reforms, but my money is on Greg beating Mathews yet again.

Let’s see what happens next.






Innovators and Laggards in Southern Arizona

August 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Tucson Daily Star carried an (unintentionally) amusing vignette on education policy. Arizona has a growing teacher shortage. Baby Boomers retiring, fewer students going to Colleges of Education, etc. Old hat to long-time JPGB readers such as yourselves. So last session the legislature decided to show a bit of respect to “local control” and give school districts more flexibility in hiring. Arizona charter schools have been hiring non-certified teachers for 22 years now and it seems to be working just dandy on the whole, so why not give districts the same larger pond in which to fish for talent?

I must have seen my friend Janice Palmer, the former lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association who now works for the Helios Foundation, attempt to remind legislators that they believe in local control umpteen dozen times over the years. Moreover I am entirely confident that I saw but a small fraction of the total number of such appeals. Districts want local control-so here it is!

So what’s the problem? Nothing much, except most of the districts in Tucson either don’t want it or can’t quite figure out what to do with it. From the Daily Star:

The measure, approved in May, was designed to get more teachers into classrooms, yet weeks before the school year was set to begin, Tucson-area districts reported having nearly 200 openings to fill.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, made up the bulk of those vacant teaching positions, with 120 as of Wednesday, July 26. Still, TUSD said it plans to place long-term substitute teachers in classrooms rather than hiring people with no formal training.

“We’re big advocates of teacher certification programs, believing that teaching kids is an art and you learn that in teacher education programs,” said TUSD interim Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo. “I don’t want to make the assumption that someone without certification would be bad for kids. There are a lot of wonderful adults who would do well by kids … I would say they wouldn’t be as effective as a teacher as somebody who is fully certified.”

Well then let’s check the research-paging Dr. Gordon. Dr. Robert Gordon of the Brookings Hamilton Project. Dr. Gordon? Oh here you are:

So certification path seems to have approximately nothing to do with student learning gains. Colleges of Education shouldn’t feel too bad as I am sure that medical schools in the Middle Ages also suffered from this sort of thing. And of course the “long-term substitutes” theory tends to often work out as “revolving door of instructors inflicted on kids” rather quickly in practice.

Ah well, not all is lost in southern Arizona. The district with the strongest reputation for innovation-Vail Unified to the south of Tucson-took a different approach. They decided to use their new freedom.

The Vail School District, recognized as one of the top achieving districts in the state, however, has decided to give noncertified teachers a shot, putting 40 people with no formal training into classrooms.

As a result, Vail started the new school year two weeks ago with no vacancies in a regular classroom.

“That was a huge accomplishment,” said Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker. “If you look at what’s happening in other school districts in the county, many have over the last couple years as the teacher shortage has become more acute, often students were starting the school year with a substitute teacher. We had to do that in the last couple years and we managed to avoid that this year and we did that because in part we had access to a larger pool of candidates.”

But the Vail School District isn’t just hiring anyone, Baker said.

Of the 24 elementary alternative certification teachers, 17 are Vail School District parents.

“I think that’s a really important statistic because it indicates that the alternative teachers we are hiring, most of them are not just somebody we met or just on a fluke decided to apply and we hired because we are desperate,” Baker said. “These are people we know because their children are going to school here and often their principal said, ‘You should apply.’ And these are people who know us and who have trusted their children to us and have a very strong commitment to making sure our schools are of high quality.”

Superintendent Baker was quick to add that liberalized certification is not a cure-all for the teacher shortage (I agree) but kudos to him for starting the year with a teacher for every classroom. And call me crazy but hiring people who have skin in the game and have already been volunteering and training them up sounds like a great idea.

Tucson Unified kids have been transferring to Vail schools through open enrollment in large numbers for many years. If TUSD parents find their kids getting the revolving door treatment, they should consider doing the same.


The Accidental Superpower

March 27, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Peter Zeihan manages to build incredibly optimistic and pessimistic visions of the immediate future into a single book. Let’s start with the good news: Zeihan builds a compelling case that the United States has been and will continue to be the most incredibly advantaged nation on the planet. This owes both to geography and other factors. In terms of geography, the United States contains both the largest navigable river system (the Mississippi and six tributaries) that delightfully sits right next to the world’s largest bloc of temperate zone arable land (the Midwest). Add to that a presence on both the Atlantic and Pacific, an abundance of world-class harbors and then a free-wheeling economic culture in which the industrial revolution took root and flourished. Add all of this up, and the United States was in a position to make an incredibly generous offer to most of the rest of the planet towards the end of World War II. The United States offered to secure global maritime shipping and grant access to sell in American market in return for approximately nothing, with approximately nothing quickly morphing into “joining the global military alliance aimed at containing the Soviet Union.”

All in all Pax Americana proved to be a smashing success- the world recovered and prospered. Global poverty dropped, and the number of nations wanting in on the deal steadily grew. Eventually even China wanted in, and then in the early 1990s the Soviet Union collapsed. The end of history!

Not so fast…the story continues.

The end of the Cold War obviously raised questions regarding the United States continuing to bear the imperial burden. Zeihan notes that the United States is actually one of the world’s least internationalized economies- selling and buying in large volumes, but as a relatively small portion of the total economy. Outside the odd BMW most everything you want is available here, especially if you consider Canada and Mexico “here.” A continuing motivation for the United States continuing Pax Americana however had been the importation of oil. Somewhere along the way the United States had switched from being the world’s largest oil exporter to the largest importer. The United States thus had an incentive to secure oil supplies, primarily in the Middle East.

Two things intrude into this state of affairs. First, the United States created entitlement programs that are badly underfunded vis-a-vis the ongoing retirement of the Baby Boom generation, likely impacting both our ability and willingness to bear the imperial burden. Second, the advent of fracking has put the United States in a position to feel rather indifferent about Persian Gulf Oil. Zeihan’s conclusion of the optimistic portion of his book is that while tough days lay ahead, the United States is going to get through it in the end smelling like a rose.

The rest of the world not so much.

The remainder of the book looks at a number of different countries and their challenges, and how they might fare outside of Pax Americana. It’s not pretty. No countries have all of America’s advantages and many countries have age demography challenges more severe than the United States- including Canada, China, most of Western Europe, Japan and Russia. Other regions, like the Middle East, have already begun wars that won’t likely stop anytime soon. If you posit a return to a dog-eats-dog world that existed for most of human history before the imposition of Pax Americana (Zeihan does) the possibilities for armed conflicts are almost limitless. The United States, a defacto continental sized island of prosperity, need not involve itself.

A few years ago I would have thought Zeihan’s global pessimism overwrought. Now I can hope that this is the case, but I am not so sure. A few years ago I would have also thought that it was highly unlikely that the United States would have drawn a “red-line” in a Syrian civil war only to change our minds, and then watch a massive refugee crisis strain European unity and contribute to the departure of the United Kingdom. Or that Russia would start the process of reacquiring their Soviet era buffer states. Or that the United States would effectively abandon the interests of their long-time Middle Eastern allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel in favor of Iran.

All of these things however happened, and it seems to be a good bet that there is more global chaos on the way. Whether or not it unfolds as Zeihan foresaw writing back in 2014 or not remains highly speculative, and there are some more optimistic scenarios than a fast return to international anarchy. Since 2014, American oilmen decisively defeated the OPEC attempt to crush fracking by adopting new technologies and practices that decisively lowered the extraction costs of American tight oil. It’s not going anywhere.

Written in 2014, many things about the Accidental Superpower seem to foreshadow Trump. Trump claims that the United States has signed a huge number of “stupid” deals and that he will strike better deals. While I’m not saying I agree with this sentiment at all, Zeihan’s book does add a new perspective, at least for me. It also makes the choice of the former CEO of the world’s largest oil company to lead American diplomacy even more interesting.

I hope that Zeihan’s global pessimism proves over done. Take the Trump administration’s reading the riot act to our NATO allies regarding their defense spending for instance. If the hobbits of euroshire don’t toughen up pretty quickly, they are going to find themselves unprepared to deal with the legions of orcs heading their way as a fading but desperate Russia grasps at lost buffer zones. Of course this is easier said than done on a continent of stagnant growth, debt crisis and aging populations but failing to deter Russia could prove far more costly. Half of the American Baby Boomers will have reached retirement age by 2020, the United States may soon as Zeihan postulates view this as someone else’s problem. A German army with 63,000 people in uniform does not seem likely to get the deterrence job done, and if you were a Baltic state or Poland you should have your alarm set at “Red Alert.” If the United States can avoid a precipitous cut off, it may be possible for the Europeans to deter aggression on their own.

Similar transitions may be possible elsewhere, but a Saudi-Iranian barely cold war seems already locked in to consume the Middle East for a long time to come. The Congress lifted the ban on oil exports in 2015, and the United States already exports a million barrels of oil per day. Reading Zeihan raises the question of just how long the United States Navy will be protecting the shipping of foreign firms in direct competition with American firms for market share. Indefinitely? Friendly tip- if I were Europe or Japan I would start signing long-term oil and gas contracts with American firms like yesterday. The United States is going to have an interest in protecting its own shipping even in the Zeihan return to anarchy scenario, and other suppliers lack the political and military stability of a Texas or North Dakota.




Which American State will be first to go upside down on the diaper market?

October 17, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Japan now sells more adult diapers than baby diapers.  Remember when someone from Japan bought Rockefeller Center (at an inflated price) and they were going to take over the world? Heh- here is how things really stand:

Japanese GDP and fertility rates are even further under water than those of our poor cousins across the Atlantic. Across the globe the Baby Boom generation has begun the process of entering into retirement, for which no one seems prepared, although some better than others. Watching your fertility rates collapse at the same time your society ages spells trouble.

The United States has a higher fertility rate and is an attractive destination for immigrants. What American states that might follow Japan into an adult diaper age demographic death spiral? Well if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere:


Colorado Faces the Future

July 22, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I’ve been writing about Colorado’s charter school sector’s delightfully high NAEP scores. To wrap this up, I’d like to put this success in a broader context of Colorado’s present and future.

So if you’ve been to Denver in the last few years, it is hard not to notice that the place is booming. The Big Bird construction cranes kind of give it away.  Growing up in oil-boom Texas, I was told about an old saying that held that if you see more than two Big Bird Cranes in a downtown area get ready for a crash. Denver seems to be defying this old nostrum comfortably. So far.

Favorable age demography stands as big if subtle factor in favor of Colorado’s boom.  The state has an unusually large working age population vis-a-vis the elderly and youth populations. Demographers quantify this through age dependency ratios- take the number of working age people (18-64) and dividing that by the combined number of 17 and younger and 65 and older. The basic idea is that at any given time working age people are pushing society’s cart, while young people are drawing upon public services such as education (for the young) and healthcare (for the elderly) at high rates.

Colorado age dependency


In 2010 Colorado had an age dependency ratio similar to that of the United States as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s.  Lots of working age people with relatively few elderly and young people worked wonders for the United States back then as the Baby Boomers entered their prime working, earning and taxpaying years.  We even had these quaint things called “budget surpluses” at the federal level in the 1990s while the Republicans and Democrats locked each other up and the tax revenue continued to pour in.

Ooops almost got drawn down the 1990s nostalgia event horizon. In any case with one of the nation’s lowest age dependency ratios, le bon temps continuer à rouler dans le Colorado! Perhaps Colorado will make better use of the current boom than the country made of the 1990s in education, as you see from the figure above that the Census Bureau does not project favorable age demography to last.

Colorado youth and elderly

Colorado is currently advantaged by a large middle-aged population, but middle-aged people have a funny way of becoming old.  Elderly people typically move out of their prime earning years, thus paying fewer taxes, and represent some of the most expensive patients in our health care system, some of which state taxpayers foot the bill. A growing elderly population creates strains on all other state spending priorities.

Over the next 15 years, through a combination of an expanding youth population and (mostly) through population aging, the Census Bureau projects Colorado’s total age dependency ratio to move from one of the lowest in the nation in 2010 (55) to a number that is far higher than any state in 2010 (72).  The Colorado of 2030 will have greater age demographic challenges than the Arizona or Florida of today.

One of the few things you can do about this now- world class education results. The United States largely squandered this opportunity in the 1990s, and the consequences seem ever more obvious and ominous.  The American economy may or may not be “rigged” but it seems terribly likely to seem that way to those who did not acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life in school. Is there any aspect of American life more rigged than K-12 education?

Colorado’s embrace of charter schools has rewarded the state with a highly effective system of schools producing globally competitive results.  A survey found that 66% of Colorado charter schools had wait lists, and they average size of the wait lists was larger than the average student enrollment of a charter school. Wonderful though it is, one can infer from this that the charter sector alone cannot satisfy parental demand for options. Colorado needs as much improvement as it can get from any and all available sources. More effective and more cost effective education is precisely what Colorado needs and what charter schools have delivered, but the pace needs to quicken.

Much of the Colorado working age population of 2030 will be going back to school in a few weeks. A slowly growing but still minority of these students show globally competitive academic achievement. The clock is ticking- Colorado has the opportunity not to repeat America’s mistakes from the 1990s, but it is far from a given. Unless you succeed, you’ll live to regret it. Colorado has however a record of success to build upon- fire up the Big Birds!



Wonk Action Shot- North Carolina edition!

April 8, 2016

Forsooth Carolinia- the Bureau of Census doth foretell of the advance to your shores of vast throngs of the young and the aged! Bestow yourself with speed: These hordes are bravely in their battles set, And will with all expedience charge on us!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So North Carolina is one of the age demographic “Big Trouble” states according to the Census Bureau projections:


So this week I had the pleasure of venturing out to North Carolina to sound the alarm along with our partners Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. You can see a video of PEFNC president Darrell Allison and talking it over here.

North Carolina’s age dependency ratio will be going up do to a projected increase of over 550,000 school age residents and over a million residents age 65 and over.

NC age dependency rato

If you look at recent trends in the NC state budget, you already see evidence of Medicaid increases (which the elderly play a large roll in driving) putting a pinch on other types of spending:

NC Budget


The U.S.S. Teacher Recruitment is Sinking Fast

March 29, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So college students have lost interest in Education Majors:

ed majors (1)

Several states face very large increases in their youth populations projected by the Census Bureau:


Some states are already experiencing growing teacher shortages, and some traditionally minded folks dream of spending our way out of this,  but absent some awesome spurt of sustained economic growth this seems implausible given things like this that come with an aging population:

Medicaid vs K-12

So student populations project to grow even while the traditional pipeline for teachers shows increasing spare capacity and Baby Boomer teachers retire and states face increasing fiscal strains. Did I miss anything? No? Good- that’s already gratuitous.

So rather than worry about this, perhaps it is best to view it as an opportunity. It’s not like the old-fashioned way of training teachers had much good to say for itself after all:

super chart

College students losing interest in ed majors hints at a broader need to re-imagine the teaching profession more broadly. The status quo is sinking, but a future of a smaller number of higher paid teachers leveraging technology to teach a greater number of students to higher average levels may be possible.

Keeping things the way they are now is neither desirable or possible.

I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This…

March 23, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Remember when I told you about Clark County (LV) Nevada packing thousands of kids into trailers with long-term substitute teachers some of whom even had BA degrees? Hmmm….well, in addition to explosive population growth and the ongoing retirement of the Baby Boom generation, this might have something to do with it as well:

ed majors (1)

So apparently college freshmen have started to listen to the large number of people who have been through an Ed School and found the experience profoundly unsatisfying. Or perhaps they are looking past that at a public school system that treats you like a 19th Century factory worker rather than a professional. Maybe both things are true. In any case, especially for states with booming K-12 populations, it is time for fresh thinking not on how we train teachers, but also about the deeper issues surrounding undesirability of the profession which goes well beyond compensation issues.

The Way of the Future-Doomed to Slow Economic Growth?

February 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Must read article by Adam Davidson in the New York Times Magazine on America’s prospects for growth. Easily the most important debate in economics today imo- the inequality debate being a symptom of a slow growth disease. The article doesn’t mention societal aging but easily could have, as it is widely acknowledged by economists as serving as a headwind to growth.

In the end however I fully agree with Davidson’s conclusion about technology (3d printing for instance is clearly in the early stages of moving out of the hobbyist phase in my mind) and his ultimate conclusion:

If we are indeed doomed to a generation of slow growth, it’s a lapse in our collective imagination, not in technological innovation, that is holding us back.

I would add only this proviso- improving the productivity of the public sector will be key to a better future. You can’t for instance get much further away from constantly improving productivity than this:

Is it even possible to increase the productivity of education spending? Arizona says hello! but buckle up because the politics are rough.


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