Give Pluralism a Chance Sol

December 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at City Journal Sol Stern revives his complaint that billionaires should be busily imposing his favorite curriculum on as many people as possible rather than supporting parental choice. I’ve explained previously how choice mechanisms serve as the main vehicle for advancing this sort of curriculum in my neck of the cacti. The dream of the one true way however apparently dies hard.

I actually share Sol’s curricular preferences, but I’m happy to note that AZ’s charter school 8th graders went to the wire with Massachusetts on the three 8th grade NAEP exams while spending far less per pupil and with a far more diverse student body than MA public schools. Attendance at such schools is delightfully voluntary, with the only problem being long wait lists at high demand schools- something that billionaires could help with far more easily that wresting control of curriculum away from the Blob. Arizona charter schools are still growing, MA’s widely admired academic standards alas are no longer with us. I may be missing something here, but it looks to me like an embrace of pluralism represents a more effective strategy than yearning for benevolent technocrats who share your preferences indefinitely despite the unrelenting hostility of powerful incumbent interests.

Sol’s piece is silent on just how the bad curriculum is to be overthrown, but giving people more choice seems like a swell method to me, albeit one that needs speeding up. Sol relates a tale of the famously centralized French K-12 system adopting damaging progressive curriculum to the detriment of students. This sounds like par for the course with central planning to these ears. The fact that well-meaning people like Sol want E.D. Hirsch curriculum means little-Sol is almost always going to find himself outnumbered in the universe of people deciding these sort of things.

The fact that parents beat down the doors to get a classical education when offered through choice mechanisms however represents a viable path forward imo.

Reforming School Governance

November 15, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on school governance reform:

Governance reform means changing the system’s internal decision-making and authority structures. Parental choices and academic standards enforced by tests are both ways of placing external pressure on the system to perform. We can also do a lot of good by changing the shape of the system’s own workings. School board elections, building-level autonomy, principal training, transparency measures, and breaking up our bloated school district system are all places where there’s a lot of potential improvement.

As always your comments are welcome!

Pop Quiz Hot Shot- What do you do with Arizona’s high school mess?

November 21, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Amid the gloom of the Arizona Board of Regents putting a sawed off shotgun into the mouth of the public high schools of the state and pulling the trigger release of a report tracking the college completion rates of Arizona public high-school students were a few items of note. First, just eyeballing of the top 10 schools reveals that 6 of them are either charter or magnet schools. The top rated school, University High in Tucson, is a magnet that requires an entry exam and minimum GPA. The school that served as the origin for the Great Hearts network of schools comes in 2nd place, narrowly behind University High, BASIS Tucson makes the list, as does the Arizona School for the Arts, Foothills Academy and the Arizona Academy of Science and Technology.

Ok, so that is about it on the good news front.

If you rank the schools from the bottom up, sure enough you find charters down there too. I’m happy to have the State Board nuke these schools when they come up for renewal, or potentially even earlier if some sort of transparent process is used and the river runs both ways for charter and district schools. Where pray tell do you put these kids? It is not like there are an abundance of high-quality public options here in the cactus patch.

So what should a state do when it has a grim future staring it in the face? HALF of the high-schools in the state had 5% or fewer kids earn 4 year college degrees. Yes I agree that not everyone wants or needs to go to college and that Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs all dropped out of college, etc. etc. etc. but let’s get real- 5% or fewer represents catastrophic failure.  It’s hard to become a Gates/Dell/Jobs impatient super-genius entrepreneur if you, um, can’t read at grade level or do a some math. The NAEP reveals that only about a third of Arizona 8th graders are achieving at those levels.

I doubt there is any one solution. I however remain open to suggestions and no, pack up the kids and flee in panic is not an option. At least, not yet.

I’m starting to think about a Recovery School District should be a part of the solution. Many of those 230 high-schools with 5% or fewer of their kids earning college degrees after six years were paid for by the Arizona School Facilities Board. These were state dollars spent for the purpose of educating students. A great many of those schools seem to have not gotten around to that part yet. Perhaps the state of Arizona should take them back and lease them out at very favorable rates to anyone with a good plan and a good track record of educating students.  Perhaps lease to own contracts could be formulated to give the buildings to operators who meet academic growth goals.

The new schools could be constituted with charters with shorter renewal time horizons (say five years) and the current group of students could have a guaranteed spot in the new school if they desire it.  Obviously not all will succeed, but what do we have to lose? You can’t get much worse than 5% or lower, and like the Louisiana Recovery School District, it gives you the opportunity to replace failed teams on a regular basis.  I would be happy to follow New Zealand’s example and have the schools run as non-profits with elected boards of parents with children enrolled in the school.

In other words, why not leverage educational assets in order to conduct a global talent search for people with a track record of successfully educating children and running schools? At this point I would trade away the Grand Canyon for a couple of hundred high-quality schools.  Why not give people the chance to earn school buildings that are currently being horribly mismanaged to the detriment of children and the broad public interest?




Epic Fail in Arizona

November 14, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Board of Regents put out a tracking study on the High School Class of 2006.  Arizona Republic reporter Ann Ryman lays out the relevant data in the first couple of paragraphs:

Half of the state’s public high schools saw 5 percent or fewer of their graduates from 2006 earn bachelor’s degrees, a new study finds.

And 62 percent of the college degrees earned by the high-school Class of 2006 went to students from just 40 of the state’s 460 high schools.

The report out today from the Arizona Board of Regents is the first in the state to provide a snapshot of college-completion rates for individual high schools. For six years, the regents tracked 53,392 Arizona students who graduated from high school in the 2005-06 school year, regardless of whether they moved or attended college out of state.

Using data from colleges nationwide, the report found that 57 percent of the Arizona students who graduated from high school in 2005-06 went on to college, but only 19 percent graduated from a four-year institution within six years.

An additional 6 percent graduated from a two-year college or trade school.

So after six-years we are looking at 25% getting some sort of credential. Half of Arizona high-schools get 5% or fewer of their graduates to earn a BA.  These results, while shocking, are actually consistent with the very low reported completion rates at Arizona’s three universities and the even lower rates reported by community colleges.

Where does one even start with this?

Perhaps with higher-education itself. This study takes aim at Arizona’s incredibly dysfunctional K-12 system, and rightly so. Let’s not however divert our attention from the role that higher-ed plays in all of this. The universities do not require the use of a college admissions exam for students graduating in the top quarter of, oh yes, those Arizona high-schools they just so effectively bashed.  Community colleges have even lower admission standards, some exercising an “open door” policy that don’t even require trivial little things like a high-school graduation.

This sets the tone for K-12 and in so doing sets up many Arizona children to fail. The universities and colleges have no problem taking money from unprepared kids and flunking them out in droves, but (call me crazy) it might serve them better by setting some minimum standards for entry and communicating those standards forcefully down to the K-12 system.

As you might expect in a state with half of the high-schools getting 5% or fewer of their kids to graduate from college after six-years, the K-12 system is just a mess. Most of the few bright spots are among schools of choice in the state, but on the whole we are looking at a catastrophe.  Defenders of the system will be quick to claim that it is Arizona’s relatively low spending per pupil that is to blame, but this won’t do for two broad reasons. First Arizona schools spend beyond the dreams of avarice of their predecessors from previous decades.  Second the state is relatively poor with wealth concentrated among retirees who came here from somewhere else with housing standing as the state’s main industry. You can guess where that winds up in terms of residential property tax rates for a state whose main industry is keeping retirees out of the cold.  Finally the state has a large number of old people and a large number of young people- translating to one of the highest age dependency ratios in the country. More than is normally the case around the country, Arizona taxpayers are either not working age yet, or past their prime earning years.

Finally even if the state had a huge amount of money burning a hole in its pocket (it doesn’t) it isn’t remotely clear that Arizona’s districts deserve anyone’s confidence in doing good things with the money. Better to create incentives for improvement and deliver additional funding upon the documentation of that improvement, which is the path that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has endorsed.

The state’s accountability system jumped the shark a decade ago.   The initial AIMS test was a rigorous exam that told Arizonans information that they didn’t want to hear, especially those working in the system. This brought on to the biggest dummy down in cut scores in the recorded history of the United States.  The testing system devolved into a bad joke- rampant item exposure and drilling to individual test items.  Our kids got better and better at taking a dummy downed AIMS exam while our NAEP scores flat-lined and very few students make it through college.

This is what is so sad about Arizona activists spending their time fighting Common Core. Um, guys, Arizona is not Massachusetts.  I have no idea how Common Core will turn out or even if it will stick around but it would boggle my mind if it somehow turned out worse than the status-quo here in our patch of cactus.  Arizona has a huge problem regardless of what happens next on standards, and btw, our current set of tests and standards did approximately nothing to prevent this problem.  Simply being against Common Core without any thought about what should be done to replace AIMS is a luxury that Arizona cannot afford.

Arizona adopted A-F school grading a few years ago, but in 2012-13 61 percent of schools received an A or a B grade.  Some cruel person could have a great deal of fun cross listing the Arizona Republic’s data base on college graduates with the school grades, but let’s resist such temptation for now. I will simply note that the NAEP exam shows very low percentages of Arizona students reading with full grade level proficiency and the Arizona Board of Regents has now found catastrophically low college completion rates. We would do well therefore to set challenging standards for school grades rather than throwing around A and B grades like beads at a Mardi Gras parade.

In short, I believe that Arizona needs a coordinated effort at the K-12 and higher education levels to toughen up what is an incredibly soft system.  Arizona’s educators policymakers are not bad people, and it was not wicked motivations that got us in to this mess. It seems nice not to require high-school students to do much of anything to graduate from high-school. It feels egalitarian and democratic to have open door policies in higher education. We can hope against hope that the handful of Arizona schools getting C grades will strive to get A/B grades, but it feels kinder and gentler to rig the game in such a way that profoundly mediocre results can get you a good grade. The road to hell-in this case backwater status- is paved with good intentions.

The problem with the delicate approach is that it systematically puts a higher priority on the comfort level of adults rather than the needs of Arizona’s children.  You can’t paper over illiteracy and the consequences of all this softness is a system that is failing to prepare students for the future.

The First Thing We Do, Let’s Close All the Middle Schools

March 22, 2013

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

The Chicago board of education has announced that it will close 61 elementary schools at the end of the year. This is the largest number of school closures by a district in a single year in U.S. history, according to some reports. And this is just the beginning. Chicago Public Schools reports that 330 of its schools are underutilized; 129 of those schools were finalists for closure this year.

Under its current enrollment, CPS has more buildings than it needs or can afford. Making matters more complicated, enrollment in district-run schools will continue to drop. The city lost 200,000 people over the last decade , and charter schools become more popular every year with families who stay in Chicago. So for years to come, the district will continually be faced with the need to close additional schools. My advice to the district: close your middle schools, for starters.

Recent research suggests that school districts should move away from middle schools, towards the K through 8 elementary schools that were once the norm across the country. The coming consolidation of CPS facilities would allow the district to go back to this model.

Middle schools became prominent in the 1960s and 70s. There was little academic justification for creating them; most of the middle school pedagogy found today was developed after middle schools were built. There wasn’t much anxiety about comingling adolescents and younger children; that was a post hoc justification. Districts simply built middle schools to house sixth through eighth graders from elementary schools that, after the Baby Boom, were actually overfull. Recent research shows that this was a huge unforced error. Districts should have just built more K-8 schools. For students, the transition from elementary to middle schools has negative, long-term impacts.

A pioneering study of middle schools was published in 2010 by Columbia University researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood. They compared New York City students at middle schools and K-8 elementary schools. They found that middle schools had a large negative impact on students test scores. Almost all of the learning losses were suffered by disadvantaged students with lower incoming test scores.

Harvard researchers Marty West and Gino Schwerdt have used the same methods to examine Florida middle schools. They found practically identical, negative effects in urban areas like Miami. These effects persisted into high school. Again, disadvantaged students were the ones who suffered the largest learning losses in middle schools, thus widening achievement gaps that reformers usually hope to close.

Middle schools were a mistake in New York and Miami. We have every reason to think they were a mistake in Chicago, too.

In Chicago, school buildings will be shuttered, an unpleasant fact. But the New York and Florida research suggests that there’s an opportunity at hand for CPS.

Consider a typical cluster of three half-empty elementary schools, all of which feed into a half-empty middle school. It’s unaffordable to keep all four schools open indefinitely. Under the status quo, if CPS was to stick with its current grade configurations at its elementary schools, the only feasible way to consolidate schools would be to close one of the K-5 feeder schools. Students would be forced to transfer to one of the other two feeder schools. Then those same students would soon feed into the middle school, which would remain under-enrolled. Some students at consolidated elementary schools will be forced to switch schools twice in as many years, first when their elementary school was closed, next when it was time to transfer to middle school.

The middle-school research points to a different strategy. The district should stop feeding students into half-empty middle schools. Instead, it should allow kids to stay at their current elementary schools by simply adding an older grade to the school. As elementary schools add one grade per year, they’d eventually become K-8 schools — they certainly have the space to do so. Middle schools would shrink in size and staffing levels, since they’d have no more incoming classes.* Eventually, the middle schools would have no more students left, since all of their present students will graduate to high school. In a couple short years, most underused middle schools could be closed.**

Under this scheme, no student would be forced to leave her current school. The district could close a large number of underused buildings. And student performance would improve.

Closing middle schools is not a cure-all. CPS will need to close more buildings than just its middle schools So goes its budget. And the district will need to pursue more than one reform policy – look at its test scores. But it should start with a no-brainer and phase out its middle schools.

* Jonah Rockoff made an excellent point to me when he visited the University of Arkansas, where I work and study, earlier this month. There are a few under-enrolled middle schools that might be led by a better staff than the elementary schools that feed into it. In that instance, you might consider letting that middle school grow from the bottom up, starting with kindergarten. That middle school’s feeder elementary school(s) would receive no new students, eventually phasing itself out as its kids grew into the rare under-enrolled but good middle schools.

** The question then becomes, what to do with the empty buildings? That’s a matter for a future post, though here are some clues.

New Score: Tom Vander Ark 3, New Gates PLDD Strategy 0

March 19, 2013

The research score continues to run-up in favor of the old Gates education reform strategy of creating small schools of choice rather than the new Gates PLDD strategy of centrally determining what students should be taught (Common Core) and how teachers should be evaluated (Measuring Effective Teachers).  When Tom Vander Ark led the Gates education effort, they had a winning strategy.

The new evidence comes from another paper that was presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference.  Two of my excellent students, Anna Jacob Egalite and Brian Kisida, received a data award from the Kingsbury Center to analyze the effect of school size on student achievement using NWEA test results.  They used a student-fixed-effects research design to see if students improved or worsened their academic achievement when they switched to a school of a different size.  And the results:

We found consistent negative effects of large school size on student math and reading achievement, especially in secondary schools that enroll more than 540 students. In grades 6-10, for example, math achievement declined by -.043 SD (standard deviation) and reading achievement declined by -.024 SD.

If a student moved from a largest quintile school in grades 6-10 to a school in the smallest quintile for those grades, we would expect a 6.4% of a standard deviation improvement in math performance.  Of course, a student fixed effects study is not quite as strong methodologically as the random-assignment evaluation of small high schools in New York City, but it is pretty darn good.  And this study has the advantage of using a large data base of more than 2 million students from across the country.  It’s pretty clear that students would benefit significantly from a reduction on school size — especially junior high and high school students.

Bring back Tom Vander Ark.

Bring Back Tom Vander Ark

March 18, 2013

Under Tom Vander Ark‘s leadership the Gates Foundation pursued an education reform strategy focused on creating smaller high schools.  The theory was that smaller high schools would create tighter social bonds between schools and students, preventing students from slipping through the cracks and increasing the likelihood that they would graduate and go on to college.  Smaller high schools could also be more varied in their approaches and offerings, allowing students to choose schools that best fit their needs.

But around the same time Vander Ark left the Gates Foundation at the end of 2006, the reform strategy shifted.  Rather than fostering small, diverse schools of choice, the Gates Foundation now wanted to build centralized systems of what everyone should be taught (Common Core) and centralized systems of evaluating, training, and promoting teachers (Measuring Effective Teachers).  As I’ve written before, the shift in Gates strategy was not prompted by research.  In fact, the high quality random-assignment study that Gates had commissioned to evaluate the small high school strategy showed strong, positive results.  But the post-Vander Ark leadership at Gates couldn’t wait for the evidence.  The knew the truth without any pesky research and had abandoned the small high schools strategy in favor of their new centralization approach years before those results were released.

Well, the evidence continues to pile up that the Gates strategy under Tom Vander Ark was effective and the new strategy is a failure.  A new National Bureau of Economic Research study by Lisa Barrow, Amy Claessens, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach examines the effects of small schools in Chicago.  Just like the earlier random-assignment study of small high schools in New York City had found and like the Vander Ark theory of reform had suggested, small schools promote high school graduation:

We find that small schools students are substantially more likely to persist in school and eventually graduate. Nonetheless, there is no positive impact on student achievement as measured by test scores. The finding of no test score improvement but a strong improvement in school attainment is consistent with a growing literature suggesting that interventions aimed at older children are more effective at improving their non-cognitive skills than their cognitive skills.

As Vander Ark had expected, smaller schools have non-achievement effects, like creating stronger social bonds, that help students go further in their schooling.  And as numerous studies have shown, higher educational attainment is strongly predictive of a host of good outcomes for students later in their lives. Score: Tom Vander Ark 2, New Gates PLDD Strategy 0.

Meanwhile I witnessed further confirmation of the failure of the new Gates approach during a panel at the Association for Education Finance and Policy conference last weekend.  The Gates folks spent more than an hour presenting their Measuring Effective Teachers work.  That stuff may win over gullible policymakers and journalists, but the researchers at AEFP were not impressed.

Tim Sass had the first question and essentially repeated my concerns about how MET fails to provide evidence for the use of multiple measures.  Value-added test scores are predictive of later life earnings, as Chetty, et al have shown, he said, but why should we believe that classroom observations measure anything we care about?  The Gates folks didn’t really have an answer.  Jane Hannaway then articulated my concern that effective teaching may be too context-dependent to lend itself to a single formula for effective practices.  The Gates folks responded that there are probably some basic skills for effective teaching that are useful in all contexts.  They may have a point but that does not address whether MET is getting at those basic skills or not.  The weak correlations of everything in the study suggest they are not finding approaches that are commonly effective.

A third questioner wondered about the cost of adopting the MET approach, especially given the need for multiple observations by multiple, trained raters.  The response was that schools are already spending money on classroom observations but of course that does not address the extra costs of the multiple rater/observations approach.

And lastly William Mathis asked about the generally weak correlations between classroom observations and value-added test scores.  Doesn’t this suggest that these are distinct dimensions of effective teaching that shouldn’t be combined in a single measure, he wondered.  The Gates response surprised me.  They said that the weak correlations were good news.  It is precisely because classroom observations and value-added measures capture different dimensions of effective teaching that we need to combine them in an overall measure.

Of course, this ignores the Sass question about whether we know that the classroom observations are measuring any important aspect of effective teaching.  But more problematic was the “heads I win, tails you lose” nature of their response.  If earlier arguments defending MET were based on how classroom observations and VAM were correlated, then how could the lack of correlation also be presented as proof of MET’s success?  I went up to the Gates presenters after the panel (and chatted with some of them later) and asked them what MET could have found that would have led them to conclude that combining the measures was a bad idea.  They were stumped.  Maybe negative correlations would have dissuaded them from advocating a combined measure, but they weren’t confident about that either.

Essentially, they admitted that the MET policy recommendation is a non-falsifiable claim.  No research finding would have dissuaded them from it.  The ability to falsify a claim is at the heart of science.  MET is not science; it is just politics.  You should have seen the discomfort of the Gates researchers as they pondered why they were presenting non-falsifiable claims as research findings at an academic conference.  This sort of thing corrupts science and has reputational consequences for the researchers who lend their credibility to the new evidence-free Gates reform strategy.

There is a solution to the rot at Gates — Bring back Tom Vander Ark.  At least his ideas were supported by rigorous research.