Tucson Arizona versus Columbus Ohio

February 15, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Large urban districts in Arizona are surrounded by suburban districts accepting transfers through open enrollment. I fear that Arizona is an outlier in this regard, and that the rest of the country is more like Ohio than Arizona. Fordham produced this deeply revealing open enrollment map of Ohio, showing every major urban center to be surrounded by districts who do not participate in open enrollment. Non-participating districts shaded in dark blue:

Now you will recall a similar map of Arizona, with districts not participating in open enrollment again marked in deep blue:

I believe that open enrollment is a big reason that Arizona has been leading the nation in NAEP gains, and that charter and private choice programs deserve some credit the eagerness with which districts participate. Take a look at Columbus on the above map- a large urban district literally surrounded by districts choosing not to allow open enrollment transfers. Now take a look at the school district map of Pima County. The Tucson Unified School District is surrounded by districts that do participate in open-enrollment- actively.

Tucson is a part of the nation’s second fastest growing state, but Tucson Unified has experienced a steady decline in enrollment. This is in part due to the rise of charter schools- as documented by the Center for Student Achievement:

Several of the districts in the chart above gained enrollment despite the increase in charter school enrollment-Queen Creek, Higley, Chandler and Phoenix Elementary. Notice also that these districts, which run a gamut between suburban and urban Arizona, all have growing charter school sectors.

Urban students in Arizona have the opportunity to attend suburban district schools, while their peers in Ohio (and much of the rest of the country) do not. We sadly do not as yet have district by district data on open-enrollment, but research by a Yale student put the figure at almost a third of district K-8 enrollment in Phoenix area districts had utilized open enrollment. We know for instance that Scottsdale Unified has 4,000 students attending through open enrollment. Anecdotally we know that several of the Tucson area school districts are also very active in open enrollment.

Arizona’s urban students have the opportunity to attend suburban schools, and Ohio’s urban students do not. This is primarily in my view because Arizona charter schools have helped open suburban seats, while Ohio’s choice programs have been overwhelmingly focused on urban students. So let’s check NAEP trends for large city students for all six exams for the entire period with state level data:

I’m confident I know what is going right for Arizona’s students in large cities: opportunity. They have the opportunity to attend their home district, suburban districts, charter schools (lots of them) and private schools. Tucson did not participate in TUDA, but does show positive trends in the state’s AZMerit data. Tucson’s enrollment is declining, but scores are improving and that is without factoring in the scores of kids attending suburban district schools, charter schools or private schools with scholarship assistance.

I’m not nearly as confident that I understand what is going wrong for urban students in Ohio, but this:

…is not working for them at all.


A Brief History of NAEP Cohort Math Gains-The Low Hanging Fruit Already Picked

February 8, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 2017 NAEP is due to be released in a few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to review a brief history of where we’ve been. The above table lists all of the available Math cohort gains by jurisdiction for the entire period all states have been giving NAEP. These cohort gains are calculated by subtracting the 4th grade scores of a cohort of students from their 8th grade scores. NAEP math and reading tests were specifically scaled and timed in such a way to allow for such comparisons.

Now…just a minute…stop staring at your state’s results and pay attention…oh okay fine go stare at your state’s results and then come back.

Right, now that you are done with that, allow me to draw your attention to the AVERAGE row at the bottom. This is a simple average between states, and it appears to be in slow but steady decline. Notice for instance Maryland’s transformation from a reform super-hero to a state that appeared to forget to teach mathematics to kids in 6th grade. Notice that the top gains from the 2009-2013 and 2011-2015 periods (Arizona) would have not been the top gainers in the golden age of 2003-2007. Arizona winds up coming top in recent years because they remained consistently pretty high while other states declined.

It should be noted that factors other than the quality of instruction could be at play here. For instance, inclusion rates for students with disabilities and ELL learners may have varied over time, creating the appearance of a decline. To test this, the below table runs the same math cohort gains but this time only for general education students:

Overall the story does not change a great deal- we still see a declining trend, and Maryland forgot to teach math to both general ed students about as much as everyone else. I will also note that Arizona owes its status as the math gains champ for 2009-13 and 2011-15 to gains among special education and/or ELL students, which as someone who worked on choice programs for special needs students in Arizona for a decade and a half, warms my heart:

My guess is that reformers picked the low-hanging fruit of education reform in the early aughts. The introduction of standards and testing in the early days seems to have produced a bump in achievement. Over time however this effect may be fading. Political Science 101 teaches that organized interests defeat diffuse interests 99 times out of a hundred, so the ability of states to employ a cat o’ nine tails and whip schools into improvement has limits. Dozens of decisions taken daily in the musty basements of State Departments of Education and obscure measures voted on by State Boards of Education can slowly but surely defang and/or subvert state accountability systems.

If there are two things that the organized employee interests of adults working in schools are expert at it is passive resistance and bureaucratic infighting. In my book, much of the reform crowd chose to fight their opponents on ground they did not choose wisely, and upon which they have little chance to prevail. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.

Mike Petrilli recently and correctly imo noted that the 2017 NAEP would be a pretty definitive test on the efficacy of the Obama year projects- promoting Common Core and teacher evaluation, student discipline reform. Top down directives have a funny way of not working out, even backfiring. Let’s see what happens next.

Crocodile Tears of Unfathomable Sadness

January 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

While some of us continue to CeleNAEP good times, Arizona’s spending lobby continues to inexplicably lament because Arizona spent more money during the housing bubble. One might, as Cartman, even refer to it as unfathomable sadness. Dana Naimark of the Children’s Action Alliance provides an illustrative example of the genre:

Ducey likes to brag about moving government at the speed of business. He says economic growth will take care of our public schools.

But for three years, he has put his foot on the brake for public school funding while directing more of our state’s precious resources to cut taxes for corporations, grow tax credits with no accountability, and support private and religious schools with tax credits and vouchers. 

The vast majority of parents who choose public schools have already waited a decade for funding to be restored. Arizona can’t afford to wait another five years without a clear financial plan. We expect reinvestments we can count on, with funding that is permanent and equitable and not built on gimmicks.

Governor, it’s time to answer that call.

I could provide links showing AZ spending per pupil spending increasing over the last three years (could someone please put their foot on my personal finances like this?) but that is just too easy. The genre features either an explicit or implicit assumption that spending is tightly tied to academic outcomes. The folly of this assumption is easily demonstrated. The National Center for Education Statistics for instance pegged current (not total) spending per pupil in Arizona at $7,562 in 2013-14 and New York at $20,440. Delightfully however Arizona students closed the academic gap with New York students.

Just in case you suspect some sort of Math fluke:

If you are a New Yorker, your sadness is entirely fathomable. Data like those in the above charts ought to have people rioting in the streets of Albany demanding to know just what is being done with their tax dollars?

If you live in Arizona, sadness looks unfathomable indeed. If you can’t be happy leading the nation in academic gains then you either have very odd K-12 priorities or else just lack the necessary talent for living happily ever after. Neither problem here!





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.






TUDA districts versus states

December 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So…Chicago…? Anyone?

New Stanford Study of Academic Gains in School Districts

December 6, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fascinating new study from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis using standardized test scores from 45 million students to track academic growth in over 11,000 school districts. The study tracks progress from grades 3 through 8. The money graph comes on page 33 and is included above. Just to save your eyes from squinting, let me provide a play by play: the top map shows average 3rd grade scores by district. Purple is low, green is high.

The second map shows academic progress over time between grades 3 and 8 between 2009 and 2015. Again purple is low, green is high.

Ok so just to (once again) brag on the Cactus Patch, you’ll notice that everything and anything on the top map bordering Canada looks green, anything and everything bordering Mexico from the Rio Grande Valley to So-Cal looks purple on the top map. Many decades after Senator Moynihan noted that the average performance on state tests is highly correlated with proximity to Canada, it remains the case today.

Cast your gaze down to the second map and you’ll see some signs for hope-most prominently in my book Arizona flipping from almost entirely purple to mostly green in growth. BOOOM!

Now before I get comment section bricks thrown my way from the Dr. Eponymous, let me hasten to add that these results while relying upon state test scores, are entirely consistent with Arizona’s NAEP results in Arizona’s case. Given that there is no ability or incentive to teach to the NAEP, I feel reasonably confident that either the academic knowledge or the testing “give a darn” of Arizona students (or some combination thereof) is on the rise. I interpret either of these things as very welcome developments and I’m not overly concerned about the mixture.

It is also worth noting that since these results focus only on school districts with the highest statewide percentage of Arizona students attending charter schools, and Arizona charter schools exceeding districts in academic growth on NAEP (see below), that the above charts underestimate Arizona’s total progress between 2009 and 2015. Arizona is does the purple to green flip with only the yellow columns in the below NAEP graph (same period as the Sanford study): * see correction below

Tennessee also does the purple to green flip so bully for them. Notice that most of the Northeast starts out very green and ends pretty purple, but er, they aren’t alone in this. Cool graphic features in this NYT write up where you can plug in a school district and watch it move between 3rd and 8th grade here.

It’s too much…it’s too much winning! No Arizona we’ve got to win MOARRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!


CORRECTION : The author included charter school scores in the districts in which they operate.



NAEP Cohort Gains by Scores for State Charter Sectors

December 4, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So to get into this chart you had to have a NAEP math score for your charter sector in the 2011 4th grade test, and then again for 8th graders in 2015. Many states either have no charter schools at all, or too few charter schools in 2011 (NC for example), or too few charter schools in 2011 or 2015 to make either sample. Some states fell into this lattercategory despite having venerable charter laws (yes I’m looking at you Indiana and Nevada). If you don’t see your state on the chart, keep calm and open more charter schools.

Otherwise a few notes: Pennsylvania and Maryland both look to have accidentally forgot their charter students any math between 4th grade in 2011 and 8th grade in 2015. I mean there is a few points of gain but one would expect that simply through aging. There might be something odd going on with the sampling or inclusion standards, but if I lived there, I’d be anxious to get to the bottom of it. I don’t so I’m not.

Michigan had the same progress over time as Louisiana despite the fact that Louisiana has been supported with philanthropy and TFA kids to a much larger extent.

Arizona and Colorado are sitting on the bench in the second half eating hot dogs and watching their backups brutalize their hapless opponents.