2016: The Year in Edu-Review

December 29, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So what did we learn in 2016?

Tom Loveless reported in an analysis performed this year that the adoption of Common Core had resulted in less than a point of average improvement in NAEP scores, and that we probably already got the partial point. Meanwhile states continued revising their standards and tests. Another K-12 master plan bites the dustbin of history.

Speaking of tests, one of the subtle trends that continued in 2016 was the enhancement of academic transparency by NGOs. Non-profit firms have built platforms that analyze state testing data into digestible ratings and in addition collect parent reviews. Thus even when states adopt phony “trophies for everyone” school rating systems, a private platform like Greatschools gives parents a more realistic skinny on academic performance, and user reviews to boot. Already the amount of web traffic these sites generate dwarf those of state departments of education websites, and Greatschools has competition.

Similar to Mark Perry explaining that your television didn’t cost $6,200 because people figured things out over time, perhaps a bit more diversity could help the cause of academic transparency. The best case scenario on testing likewise imo would be to give schools more flexibility regarding the standards and testing used. The private platforms have already been dealing with “trophies for everyone” and can further take on the task of digesting a more diverse testing data for parents so long as state officials make some basic efforts regarding comparability and avoid opt-out provisions. Accountability could then take the form of parents choosing schools with decent information, which is strongly preferable to the accountability-free accountability bureaucratic compliance systems practiced in most states today. States can of course choose to keep things as they have been, but quite frankly its a bit difficult to see much benefit in so doing. Arizona lawmakers struck a deal to increase testing flexibility in preference to an opt-out bill in 2016. Perhaps other states will follow in 2017.

When we look back at 2016, the most important research may prove to be a Harvard study of the Georgia Tech MOOC Master’s degree program. Cliff’s Notes: the inexpensive Masters program in Computer Science program is competing against non-consumption. In other words, in the absence of the online GT program, the participating students would simply not pursue graduate level training in the field. As the study explained:

Demand for the online option is driven by mid-career Americans. By satisfying large, previously unmet demand for mid-career training, this single program will boost annual production of American computer science master’s degrees by about eight percent. More generally, these results suggest that low cost, high quality online options may open opportunities for populations who would not otherwise pursue education.

Crunchy education traditionalists like Jay will doubtlessly harumph that we don’t yet know what the job market will make of such a degree as yet. They will alas be right, but competing against non-consumption moves the question from “is this as good as a normal GT Masters” to “hey is this worth $7,000 and my time?”

On the parental choice legislative front, 2016 does not rank among the legendary years for progress, in part because it was an election year. Speaking of the election year, the Massachusetts ballot issue on charter schools ought to serve as a wake up call.  Writing on the Presidential election in MA, New York Times reported “You could drive a full 30 miles through the leafy suburbs northwest of Boston before reaching a town where Mr. Trump hit 20 percent of the vote.” Note however that these same wealthy and progressive voters slapped down more charter schools for inner city Boston kids on the same ballot. AFDC makes a poor role model for the parental choice movement, while the example of Social Security suggests a way forward.

Finally the biggest K-12 story of 2016 doesn’t have much to do with K-12. One of the two American catch-all parties commands a dominant position at the state level where the vast majority of K-12 action lies. Since President Obama took office, the Democratic Party has seen their collection of state legislative seats shrink by almost a quarter, and experienced a net decline in governors as well. Republicans will hold “trifectas” (the Governor and legislative majorities in both chambers of the legislature) in 25 states in 2017, while Democrats hold trifectas in six states in their coastal strongholds (and Hawaii). The sea-change at the state level occurred in November of 2010, but many may have been expecting the trend to moderate in 2016, but the voters made other plans for the time being.

Even before the election of 2016, the tyrants seemed to be defeating the street in the ongoing Arab Spring of the center-left debate over education policy-NAACP, Democratic Party Platform, etc. I agree with Greg that the choice movement has cultivated ties with progressives and can ill-afford to squander them. Has however the loss of almost a thousand state legislative seats moved Democratic caucuses hopelessly to the left on K-12 issues?  Can progressives keep clear about the benefits of choice to disadvantaged communities even though Donald Trump professes an affection for it?*

There is only one way to find out- let’s get 2017 started.


*If not I will set my stopwatch to await progressive opposition to infrastructure spending and federal family leave legislation, as “I hate anything Trump likes” will be about the level of analysis utilized.




Anyone want to bet against Arizona for the 2017 NAEP?

December 13, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Lisa Graham Keegan and I finally had the opportunity to collect on our bet with Mike Petrilli on the 2015 NAEP.  You may recall that Mike bet us before the release of the 2015 NAEP results for Reading and Math that Arizona’s NAEP scores would decline. Using our spidey-sense, LGK and I bet Mike that they would be going up, not down.  Arizona’s NAEP scores did go up. Mike was a good sport and quite appropriately paid his debt to us in copper cups (one of the state nicknames is the Copper State).

Depending upon how you examine the data Arizona is either near or else is at the actual top on gains. Measured by student cohort over time, Arizona’s 4th grade class of 2009 made more progress on Math and Reading between 4th and 8th grade scores in 2013 than any other state. Arizona’s 4th grade class of 2011 achieved the same pinnacle in their 2015 scores as 8th graders. (NAEP Math and Reading exams are both scaled and timed to allow such comparisons). The gains for Arizona charter school students dwarf those of Arizona as a whole, or any other state.

So anyhoo, the term “Wild West” is being thrown around as if it is a term of derision by some of those uncomfortable with the selection of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Here in the actual Wild West we wear the term with pride. The Arizona charter school sector has a majority minority student population, scored like a New England state on all six NAEP exams, and shows consistent results on the state PARCC exams.

Let me know when your state pulls something like that off, because I will be happy to celeNAEP with you. In the meantime, NAEP will be giving state level exams in Reading, Math and Writing in just a few weeks! Let’s see what happens next…

Where Do You Consistently Find the Highest NAEP Scores? Where Everybody Knows Your Name

October 28, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So hidden deep in the NAEP data explorer is a variable for school enrollment.  Yesterday we saw how Arizona charter schools crushed the ball on the 2015 NAEP science exams, but I was curious- would there be evidence suggesting that small schools of choice perform especially well? NAEP provides such a number in a crosstab for Arizona charter/district by school enrollment. Small district schools in Arizona performance is nothing to write home about, and are probably mostly rural. Arizona’s small charter schools-schools of choice-however, well, that is a different story. These are the 8th grade science NAEP scores for Arizona charter schools with 399 or fewer students compared to statewide averages for all students:


I thought that was interesting, so I checked to see how this would look in the 2015 NAEP Reading exam for 8th graders. Well-


Well but the whole thing would fall apart in the math test. Except, it didn’t:


Obviously this evidence is only suggestive, but do keep in mind that we have a large number of formal studies finding positive outcomes associated with attendance at small high schools. So perhaps high quality education involves authentic community with a shared vision of what constitutes high quality learning, and this process is facilitated by the ability of a child and parent to choose. It certainly appears to be the case out here in the Cactus Patch. Let’s call it the “Cheers theory of learning” in that you want to go where everybody knows your name. If that is you want to learn to read, figure some math, and understand science. If you prefer to fade into the background and then drop out of school- we’ve got plenty of Big Box schools to choose from as well.

So you see dare Normy....

So you see dare Normy dare used to be this big Foundation that had a great idea but then…

Smarick on the Quiet Revolution of Charter Schooling

October 14, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Good read from Andy on charter schooling at the quarter century:

All these particular issues, however, underscore a basic point: Chartering has quietly revolutionized public schooling. It didn’t happen through clever, technocratic administrative fixes or a gigantic, rapidly passed omnibus legislative package. Nor did it humbly take for granted longstanding arrangements or merely tinker with the mechanics of existing programs. Instead, chartering took the long view. It trusted families and communities, carved out space for a new approach, and then allowed civil society to slowly create and change the new system. The result has been more individual empowerment, educational options, respect for pluralism, competition, civic-sector activity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

That is indeed how charter schooling looks like out here in the Cactus Patch- a long term bet on self-determination that paid off in an absolutely spectacular fashion. Well, I mean, if you consider getting a large majority-minority student population to score near the average student in Massachusetts for about half the per pupil funding given to schools in that high-income and pale complected state spectacular. I mean I guess it really depends on where you put the bar and all.  Little Ramona for instance doesn’t like it because the sector isn’t as prone to regulatory capture in ultra low turnout elections dominated by organized employee interests governed by school districts.

I also see much wisdom in the incremental gradualism that has marked the first 25 years of charter schooling, but also a ton of reasons to speed things up.

Small Schools 18, Big Box 2

October 4, 2016
Why is this man smiling? Read on MacDuff...

Why is this man smiling? Read on MacDuff…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So last week I used an Arizona Board of Regents Report to show you the top AZ high schools year after graduation college attendance:


So now let’s take the chart immediately above, and rather than emphasize school type, let’s instead look at the number of high school students. The above chart still ranks the same 20 schools by their 2015 college attendance rates, but simply provides attendance rates.


The two large high-schools that made the list (Chaparral and Catalina Foothills) may be the most leafy of leafy suburban schools in Scottsdale and Tucson respectively. The other 18 schools in the top 20 are small charter and magnet schools. Of course a score of 18 to 2 is merely suggestive, but rigorous evaluations of small schools in New York City point to a similar conclusion: good outcomes come with small schools.


Arizona Charter and Magnet Schools Top the List for College Attendance of 2015 Graduates

September 26, 2016


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

‘Nuff said…

John Oliver Has it All Wrong- We WANT ineffective schools to close

September 22, 2016


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I went through the Arizona Board of Regents report on college graduation by high-school some more, and looked this time at the bottom to see whether charter schools were over-represented at the bottom as well as the top. A few caveats I eliminated alternative high schools from the list, as these schools are basically dropout recovery programs. Second, there is a lot of missing data for a lot of high schools, so this may not be the actual bottom 10, more like the bottom 10 for the schools we have data on. Another * goes to Metro Tech which is teaching career and technical skills which might keep graduates gainfully too busy to finish college in a six-year span (although many CTE students do eventually earn college degrees).  Metro Tech may be great or it may leave a lot to be desired but I would not conclude much of anything from their place on this list.

My method for eliminating alternative schools was to look at the oldest available list from the Arizona Department of Education, having said that when you look at the website for the International Commerce High School it mentions serving adult high school students and my spidey sense tells me that it is an alternative school. The other charter school on the list (delightfully imo) closed.

Regular ole district high schools dominate the bottom of the list even more than charter schools dominate the top.  John Oliver should do a segment on how horrible it is that bottom dwelling schools flounder indefinitely without any fear of closure.